Tallinn, November 14 – Confronted by the need to draft a far higher percentage of the country’s draft-age cohort, Russian military committees this fall often have refused to recognize deferments, ignored the findings of medical examinations, or demanded and received bribes from many others, according to an investigation by the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees.
An article in “Novyye izvestiya” reported on both why such violations appear to have increased this fall and on the significant variations in the way different voenkomaty, as draft boards are known in Russian, have been behaving even within the Russian capital itself (www.newizv.ru/news/2008-11-10/101183/).
The reason these officials feel squeezed to fulfill their quotas “at any price” is that this fall they were expected to draft almost twice as many men as last spring, 219,000 compared to 133,000, at a time when the number of 18 year old Russians is declining and projected to fall significantly further in 2009 and 2010.
Valentina Mel’nikova, a senior official at the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees, said that her group has compiled “a black list” of those voenkomaty “which have ‘lost’ or removed from the files of draftees documents about those who are ill” or about those who should not be drafted for other reasons.
Some draft boards are putting pressure doctors who have given a diagnosis that would allow potential soldiers to avoid service and then going ahead and drafting the individuals anyway who thought they had been exempted. This has become a larger problem now that young people have the right to select their own doctors (if they can pay) for such examinations.
Moreover, the voenkomaty frequently engage in various forms of psychological pressure on potential draftees and “refuse to recognize existing exemptions” for education or family responsibilities, problems that are compounded by the willingness of some military officials to take bribes and especially by shortcomings in the Russian legal code in this area.
Among the other problems the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees identified was the failure of the law to specify whether those enrolled in masters’ degree programs are continuing their higher education – in which case, they are entitled to deferrals – or starting a new educational program – in which case, they are not.
Moreover, the Union says, the relevant ministry “has still not developed an official form” that potential draftees who have the responsibility for looking after relatives who are invalids can fill in. As a result, these young men have to offer their own documentation, which some voenkomaty accept and others do not.
The Union’s Mel’nikova says that those who are refused a deferment in such cases should file suit because the courts are “the only possibility for someone subject to the draft to defend his rights,” although history suggests that Russian courts vary widely in their willingness to find for those hoping for a defense of their rights.
Given all the other problems the Russian military has and especially the resistance of many senior commanders to plans for radical reform and downsizing of the officer corps, such problems, long a fact of life in the Russian Federation, may seem to be a small problem, but there are three reasons for thinking otherwise.
First, because various voenkomaty treat those subject to the draft not according to one yardstick but according to widely varying ones, these problems with the draft are likely to exacerbate tensions between regions where draftees are treated fairly and those where many suspect some are avoiding service for entirely arbitrary reasons.
Second, the corruption in a part of the system that touches the lives of so many Russian families will also only intensify class-based tensions, especially among those who feel that someone else or someone else’s child is avoiding military service while they or their offspring are having to go.
And third, such feelings, if they grow, could mean that the military will be a less than totally reliable instrument of the state if Moscow should be confronted, as several analysts have recently suggested, by the kind of social protests like those which took place in Novocherkassk 46 years ago.
Should that prove to be the case or should the draft-based Russian military prove as unskillful as it did in Georgia – Russian forces won there only because they so vastly outnumbered Georgian personnel – Moscow’s failure to address these problems with the draft could prove to be one of its most serious mistakes.