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Forced conscription roils Russians

President Putin promises to phase out the draft by 2007, but heavy-handed recruitment tactics persist.

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Olga and Grigory Ossovsky lost one son in military service and have struggled long and hard to keep their second boy out of the Army. They blame Russia's system of universal male conscription for devastating their family and say it's time Kremlin leaders made good on pledges to create an all-volunteer armed force.

American politicians thinking about reinstating the draft to boost military manpower might take a cautionary look at Russia, where it has never ceased to be a painful and divisive issue. Though leaders here have been promising for a decade to build a US-style professional Army, the 1.2-million strong Russian armed forces still induct up to half a million young men annually for compulsory two-year service, many of them unwilling.

For some people, like the Ossovskys, conscrip-tion - even in peacetime - is evidence that the Russian state remains fundamentally unreformed despite the long-ago demise of the Soviet Union.

"Our leaders do not care about keeping their promises, and they are indifferent to public opinion," says Mr. Ossovsky, a theatrical producer. "They simply do what they want, just as they always did."

The Ossovsky's son Nikolai was drafted out of medical college in 1996. Two months before the end of his service he died in what the Army called a suicide. The family has never been able to clear up the facts, Ossovsky says. The couple has managed to obtain a legal exemption for their younger son, Stanislav, but they do not feel confident that it will last.

Official figures show that 337 Russian soldiers suffered noncombat deaths last year, about 35 percent of them suicides. The Soldiers' Mothers Committee, a grass-roots antimilitary group, says the actual number is 2,000 to 3,000 noncombat deaths each year, based on investigation requests they get from bereaved parents.

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