For the whole week, the Russian media abounded in reports about a bill being prepared on the abolition of all deferments for recruits called up for military service. Even a remark made by Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov on a visit to London failed to put an end to the discussions. The ministry is not going to make any amendments to the law on military duty and military service, the minister said. The position will remain unchanged at least until 2008, when a comprehensive federal programme on the predominantly contract principle of manning will be effected.
The call-up issue is so sensitive in Russian society that few believed the minister. But they should have. The Defence Ministry is indeed not planning to initiate a revision or abolition of the current 24 call-up deferments. Lieutenant-General Valery Astanin, head of the manning department of the Main Organisation and Mobilisation Directorate of the General Staff, told the RIA Novosti analyst more than once that the military will never take the initiative in securing amendments to some or other legislative acts aimed at "the slightest restriction of civil rights and freedoms." "We do not want to provoke anti-army sentiments in society time and time again," he says. "We have had enough of this sort of confrontation."
But this does not mean that an initiative to have some deferments abolished will not come from a different organisation - such as the presidential administration, the newspaper Vedomosti claims. Now a working group led by presidential aide Igor Shuvalov, the publication writes, is working on a reform of the army drafting system.
Why is the reform necessary? There are many reasons. One is the demographic "pit" that falls precisely on 2007-2008. By this time, there will be half the current number of 18-year-olds in Russia, which means the call-up pool will be halved.
Then there is the issue of quality. According to official statistics, 35% of 2003 conscripts had no previous employment record, 22% had not even finished the secondary school (112 youths were unable to read and write), 53% had health problems, 20% were from one-parent families, 6% were on police files for anti-social behaviour, and 5% had overturned or pardoned convictions.
Not surprisingly, some experts describe such an army as "lumpen-ridden," while a high degree of institutionalised bullying continues within its ranks, which is the main reason why the draft is so unpopular among the higher-educated sections of the population. Mothers, students, and young people in general in big and industrialised cities share these sentiments. Few want to leave their comfortable city flats for barracks under the command of far from benevolent officers and warrant officers, for open fields and training grounds, cold and dirt, and especially for flash points and war.
But it is these social strata that must play the key role in today's armed forces, which must be well equipped and highly intelligent, capable of using state-of-the-art, highly sophisticated hardware and weapons. This is the crux of the problem. Everything else is minor detail, yet any detail sparks a controversy in society.
For example, the most popular deferment is for higher education. This is undoubtedly a boon for an industrial and post-industrial society seeking technological and intellectual progress. But while in 1989 this country, which was made up of fifteen republics and had a population of 250 million, boasted 514 institutes that granted deferments to their students, today's Russia, which has only 142 million people, enjoys 1,035 such institutions. And this on top of the fact that no more than 20% of the graduates are employed in their chosen fields.
The generals have concluded that young men are going to university for one purpose: to avoid the draft. And this at a time when academics and college staff are saying students are the intellectual reserve of the country and it would be the utmost folly and mismanagement to drive them into barracks, even for a year or two. The dispute is set to run indefinitely.
However, it is worth taking a look at what the abolition of the existing deferments would give the country and the army. In terms of the demographic shortfall, for example. Every year, the army calls up about 350,000 youths (these figures are not classified and given in a presidential decree). That, as the same official data show, is 10% of the potential conscripts. Consequently, the potential number is 3.5 million. If this figure is divided by two (equivalent to the halving of the birth rate), we are left with 1.75 million. If by 2008, as the defence minister pledges, 50% of the ranks will be contract servicemen, then the required number to be drafted will be 175,000, instead of 350,000. The same 10% as now. So the need to abolish deferments is doubtful.
Eliminating students' deferments also raises the same doubts, as young people will simply find other legislative loopholes. The most worthwhile solution to the problem is to make the troops really attractive for young people: to raise, not on paper, but in reality, the prestige of military service, improve conditions in barracks, and give better meals in canteens, uniforms and other necessary attributes. But in this case, officers and warrant officers should also be better supplied. They should join the army by vocation, rather than because circumstances have forced them to do so. Applicants should be screened as thoroughly as would-be cosmonauts. This then will dispense with the need for the police to hunt down recruits.