ROAR: Prospects vague for professional armed forces

The draft age will be extended to 30 in Russia and more deferments eliminated if the General Staff’s new proposals are accepted.

In many countries, people older than 30 are called up for duty, Col. Gen. Vasily Smirnov, head of the Chief Organization and Mobilization Directorate of the General Staff, said, explaining the new initiative. He was speaking with members of the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, on April 29.

Currently, those between the ages of 18 and 27 are called up in Russia. The General Staff is not planning to raise the minimum age of 18, while the length of military service – now at one year – is not expected to change.

At the same time, this year’s spring call-up will be extended by two months through to August 31. About 270,000 eligible young people are expected to be called up, and the military say they do not expect any problems with the draft because of the drop in birth rates in the 1990s.

During the current reform of the armed forces they should be downsized by 1 million by 2016.

However, if the initiative is headed, students may be called up after finishing two years in university. The number of universities whose students have draft deferments may also be decreased.

Concerned with the public’s outrage over low morale and numerous scandals, the Ministry of Defense has recently proposed new measures that should “humanize” the service in the armed forces. The conscripts, in particular, will work five days a week, getting official weekends, and more leisure time.

They may be also freed from such “non-relevant duties” as cooking and cleaning-up, which are to be carried out by civilian organizations.

However, proposals made by the General Staff may provoke new criticism of the current state of the Russian armed forces.

The government’s Rossiyskaya Gazeta daily described the plan to extend the age of conscripts as “a desperate call-up.” Smirnov’s statements have already evoked the public’s mixed reaction, the paper said.

The military have begun reforms “at the wrong end,” believes Aleksandr Brod, director of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights. “It seems that they have forgotten about creating a professional army,” he stressed. “I have not heard any proposals on this issue for a long time.”

All concerns about recruitment for the army could be understood, Brod said. “But I still oppose the idea of extending the draftee’s age to 30, as well as a sharp reduction of universities giving draft deferments,” he noted. “How many people will be severed from their families and studies?” he asked.

Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov recently met with representatives of civil organizations, Ida Kuklina of the Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights Council under the president told the paper. She believes the task of reforming the armed forces is being implemented despite difficulties.

Then the minister made “interesting statements, concerning, in particular, introducing a five-day week for conscripts,” she said. The participants of the meeting “understood that the goals of the military reform that had been set will be implemented and the armed forces will be actually turning to the contract system of recruitment,” she stressed.

If the military service is conscript oriented, it will be a huge change in the armed forces, Kuklina said. But she added she was “somewhat concerned” about Smirnov’s latest statement.

Some members of the Federation Council support part of the General Staff’s initiatives, Kommersant daily said. The decision to reduce the term of military service from two years to one year “was a political one,” said Viktor Ozerov, chairman of the upper house’s Defense Committee. This has led to the deficit of the military personnel, the paper quoted him as saying.

The Defense Ministry knows how to solve this problem, preparing amendments to the draft law, the paper noted. The deputy head of the same committee, Mikhail Sorokin, proposes to make the access to state positions available only to those citizens who served in the army, the paper added. Smirnov, however, believes that this is not possible.

Human rights activists question many arguments of the military officials concerning draft deferments. A lot of existing ones are not used by citizens, Sergey Krivenko, director of the Citizen Army Law center told Kommersant.

The federal program aimed at introducing the contract system into the armed forces “has failed,” Krivenko said. Instead of admitting mistakes, “the preservation of an obsolete draft system” is being proposed, he noted. The public’s reaction to these proposals may be unpredictable, he added.

Officials in the Ministry of Education and Science are not ready to comment on the statements of the military, the daily said. However, many rectors of universities are unlikely to support them, it added.

Viktor Sadovnichy, rector of Moscow State University, said he was satisfied with the present draft system and does not see any sense in the changes, the paper noted. Yaroslav Kuzminov, rector of the Higher School of Economics, agrees with him. “A long break in studies will not be helpful for students,” he said.

“Defense depends on education received by citizens, not less than on the number of soldiers,” Kuzminov noted. He doubted that the new initiative of the General Staff “will gain political support.”

However, some members of the Federation Council supported amendments, the paper said. The new version of the draft law may be submitted to the government in September this year, it added.

The General Staff’s initiatives do not correspond to the conception of the contract armed forces, many analysts and human activists say. And there have been no signs that the conception has been amended, said Valentina Melnikova, secretary of Soldiers’ Mothers group, protecting the rights of conscripts.

“We met with Serdyukov and Smirnov on April 20, and there were no hints that a legislative folly was being prepared,” she told Gazeta.ru online newspaper. “We touched on the issues of recruitment, but the minister did not say something like this,” she added. “I do not want to believe that he changed his opinion in eight days in this way.”

The deputies in the State Duma Defense Committee have not made any statement about the initiatives. Its head, Viktor Zavarzin, told the paper that the General Staff’s proposals will require “thorough study”. It is necessary “to weigh all pros and cons, attracting all the sides involved,” the deputy said.

The proposals of the military should be discussed by society, lawyer Anatoly Kucherena told RIA Novosti news agency. The Public Chamber will control this issue and will be discussing it as soon as the General’s Staff’s initiatives are submitted, he said.

Sergey Borisov,
Russian Opinion and Analysis Review