Russia's military in national service dilemma

Russia’s army needs to fill its biggest draft quota in years, but there may be not enough men to call up.

Army chiefs have vowed to meet the targets, but human rights groups are ringing the alarm after cases of illegal recruitment.

Many young Russian men are among the last recruits checking in for conscription. The spring draft of 2009 is nearly over and soon they will try on the military uniform and join the school of life.

“Of course we have to give everything we can to our motherland. I want to serve!” Ivan, a recruit says.

But not everyone is showing such military readiness. Last year, Russia cut compulsory service time from two years to one. Now a record 305,000 ranks need filling. Demographers say it’s a mission, almost, impossible.

“In the 1990s, Russia saw a massive fall in the birth rate, because of political and economic turmoil. Now we have half as many men of draft age to enlist as in previous years. This year, we are seeing the most significant decline of about 120,000 in the contingent. In the next few years, the number of 18 year-old men will keep falling,” says demographer Sergey Vassin.

The physical condition of the draftees is another head ache for the enlisters. This year, due to health problems, only every third recruit was considered fit for service.

“If we analyze the situation, we can see that the number of mobility problems and eye diseases is growing among today’s young men,” recruitment doctor Viktor Marchenko says.

Desperate to hit the target, enlisters sometimes resort to previously-illegal ways to fill their ranks.

Zamir Shukhov suffered multiple fractures and a broken neck in a car accident, but this spring he was called up to join the armed forces. He is still considered fit for service.

“I’m hiding out, because I cannot go to my own town – I’m going to be grabbed by the military service. My passport was taken away, I can’t go abroad, I have to be in Russia – within the borders – so basically, I’m fighting for my rights from underground,” Shukhov says.

Zamir is suing the Russian army. Doctors consider him handicapped, but military medics altered his diagnosis. Lawyers say, this spring, students who were previously protected from conscription by their universities have also become victims of the round-ups.

“This year the situation is tougher for the recruits because the enlisters have to fulfill a record draft plan. Enlisters are cheating. Students are picked up after exams even if their deferrals are still in place,” lawyer Aleksey Timofeev says.

Enlistment chief, Magomed Ismailov, however, denies the army is doing anything illegal.

“All 21 grounds for deferral are being considered as they were in previous years. We can’t recruit the unfit. That’s why we have double check-ups,” Ismailov says.

But in its drive to find recruits, he says the Russian army still holds to its main principle: it’s every man’s duty to serve the Motherland.