The alternative

IssueMarch - May 2003
Feature by Daniel Garay

Since 1991, the democratically oriented public in Russia had advocated for the legal regulation of an alternative civil service as a substitute for military service by conscription. All such attempts met with active resistance by the military lobby. However, in the winter of 2002 the Russian government submitted an Alternative Service (ACS) bill to the Duma; drafted in the ministry of defence, the bill had a number of discriminatory provisions.

Alternative service is not necessarily civilian: the new law allows for the assigning of conscripts to military organisations (article 4)

The duration of alternative service is 42 months (36 months for performing non-combatant duties in military organisations) (article 5). This provision is in conflict with the UN Commission on Human Rights Report (E/CN.4/1993/122) which states that the assignment to ACS should not amount to punishment for one's convictions.

The requirement to apply for alternative service while a person is under the legal age of consent (at 17, six months before the callup at 18) is unconstitutional and inconsistent with freedom of choice (article 11). A young conscript who is legally a child has to justify his convictions first in his application and then during quasi-judicial proceedings at a draft commission session. Moreover, the new law forbids servicemen from reapplying for alternative service while in the army.

Members of the Organisation Without Weapons receive their meeting papers with enthusiasm! PHOTO: DANIEL GARAY


The new law may encourage corruption. The law does not clearly define who makes the final decision concerning the locality and institution where an applicant will be assigned for alternative service. The law also says that alternative service should be performed “`as a rule” outside the area where the person lives (article 4). The phrase “as a rule” implies that there may be exceptions, so a possibility for conscripts to stay close to their home - subject to a military commissar's discretion - will inevitably breed corruption.

With the law taking effect on 1 January 2004, the community of human rights groups and NGOs is actively advocating for changes in the ACS ruling. One such group is the Interregional Public Foundation “Sozidanie”, translated as “Constructive Approach”. With its project “Promotion of ACS Programs”, Sozidanie has set itself the main objective of supporting youth projects related to Conscientious Objection, and carrying out activities connected with the problems of ACS such as organising an Interregional Summer Volunteering Camp (“Solovki-ACS-2002”).

The purpose of my visit to the meeting was to explore the possibilities of War Resister's International (WRI) improving its contacts in Russia, and inviting new affiliates to the network. This would lead to closer cooperation between WRI and Russian anti-militarist groups, with future plans for seminars and actions in the area as a result of increased collaboration. WRI has been looking to expand its network into the ex-Soviet Union, and the recent Prisoners for Peace Broken Rifle (see last Peace News) is only one example of how it recognises the importance of outreach in the region.

The Organisation Without Weapons meeting was attended by 30 young men from across the Western parts of Russia. The two day meeting was held in the city of Tver, two hundred kilometres north-west of Moscow, on the way to St Petersburg. By the end of it, the organisation would have a strategic plan for the future, with Sozidanie's objectives as a starting point.

Over the course of the weekend, the group was faced with the challenges of setting up an organisation; addressing questions such as what system of decision-making should be put in place, who should be in charge, and what the charter would include. Only when this was resolved could they begin discussing strategy.

Unfortunately, but maybe not surprisingly for a newborn group, an overwhelming amount of time was spent on those preliminary tasks. An election had to take place to determine who would be on the council, but only after a vote to determine how many people could be on it in the first place. Of course everyone was going to be heard. Then it was the time for the charter. Alas an article in the preliminary charter rendered part of the newly-elected council's powers unconstitutional. One of the members underlined the infringing articles of the charter hung up on the wall. More discussion ensued!

But as each person sitting around the room was able to speak their mind, something was forming. Strategy was finally up for debate, and the earlier-formed small groups came back with plans of anti-fascist film festivals, media events, speaking to children in schools, talking to soldiers, writing pamphlets ... This group of young men, some of whom had been attracted by the earlier summer camp, were creating a truly anti-militarist faction, warts and all. I was there at the creation.