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Alternative service under fire

Russian military officials attack a city's new effort to allow service in hospitals rather than the Army.

Andrei Zakolodkin spends his days cleaning bedpans, hauling trash, and washing stairs. "It's hard work," he says, "but I don't mind serving my country. I just will not join the Army."

Mr. Zakolodkin is among 20 young men here who have become the first Russians in history to fulfill their compulsory military duty by performing public service rather than bearing arms. If the military prosecutor in Moscow has his way, they could be the last.

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The youths, who have been working as orderlies in the city's main hospital since early January, are part of a program set up by Yury Lebedev, the reform-minded mayor of this Volga city of 1 million, about 300 miles east of Moscow. Mr. Lebedev says it's a matter of constitutional principle.

Beyond that, the aim is to curb draft-dodging, and provide workers to fill critical but low-paid municipal-service jobs.

Lebedev says he tired of seeing 2,000 local boys go on the lam every year to avoid military service - while those unlucky enough to be caught are dragged away to the Army, or to prison.

"We have all the legal mechanisms to provide decent alternative service to young men, but for the past decade there has not been the political will in Moscow to do it," Lebedev says. "This idea is long overdue, and the loud demand for it to be implemented is coming from below."

But the project has run into trouble. At the beginning, military recruiters pressured four of the participants into dropping out and heading for boot camp instead. In late February, a federal court declared the program illegal, and letters handed out by a prosecutor to the boys last week warned that their working time in the hospital would not be counted against their military obligations.

"These young men have become hostage to a battle being waged between local authorities and the Defense Ministry," says Eduard Vorobyov, deputy head of the State Duma's Defense Committee. "The mayor of Nizhni Novgorod is responding to public opinion and acting on humanitarian principles, but he is on a collision course with the federal government."

Russia is one of the few developed countries to practice universal male conscription, requiring all men between the ages of 18 and 28 to serve two years under arms. But the 1993 Constitution guaranteed a civic alternative to those whose "religious or other convictions" preclude military service. Successive Russian parliaments, heavily lobbied by the powerful Defense Ministry, have refused to pass enabling legislation. In the absence of a law, courts have turned a deaf ear to conscientious objectors and, in most cases, consigned them straight to the Army or to jail.

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A draft federal law being written by the Defense Ministry proposes alternative service in a form critics describe as unreasonable and punitive. The bill, which should see its first reading in the Duma in March, would require young men to go through a tough and humiliating process of proving their pacifist beliefs, and then agree to four years of "alternative service" at jobs that would be defined by military authorities.

"The goal of this draft law is obviously to make alternative service so unattractive that no one will want it," says Sergei Sorokin, chair of the Movement Against Violence, a grass-roots, antimilitary group. "Alternative service should entail an honorable choice for each citizen, and our Army seems completely unwilling to accept this idea."

The Nizhni Novgorod initiative, conceived last summer, revived the Soviet-era local draft commission - a public review board that includes civilian as well as military representatives - and empowered it to design municipal alternative service projects. In communist times, local draft commissions were purely for show, but the city's new panel of 85 local citizens quickly became a battleground between advocates and opponents of universal military service. When the dust settled, 25 young men destined for last autumn's conscription intake had been accepted for the new alternative-service project. One of the boys was subsequently exempted on health grounds, four were swept into the Army, and 20 were sent to fill menial but badly needed positions at the city's main hospital.

"I've been asking for alternative service for five years, and now I'm delighted to finally have the chance," says Vladimir Korochkin, who says his religious beliefs forbid any association with violence. His job, which pays 500 rubles (about $15) per month, involves working with disabled and elderly patients, had been unfilled for years before the program began. Like the others, Mr. Korochkin has signed a three-year contract in exchange for Lebedev's pledge that this will legally discharge his military obligations.

Zakolodkin says he had to flee the military police and take refuge in City Hall. But once the mayor's office took up his case, his papers were forwarded to the local draft commission and he was quickly accepted into the program. "If it weren't for the mayor's commitment to alternative service, I'd be marching and saluting right now," says Mr. Zakolodkin.

Supporters of the program say it has revolutionized Russia's political landscape. "Before we started this, these lads had no one to advocate their rights," says retired Col. Vasily Antipov, who serves as the mayor's representative on the city draft commission. "Now the struggle is between institutions. It is getting fierce, but we believe we have the constitution on our side and we'll take it to the Supreme Court if necessary."

Most of the young participants remain confident. "I trust the mayor. I think he will stand by us," said Vsevolod Kurepin, after being served the prosecutor's letter warning that the local program was illegal in the eyes of federal authority. "I can see that resistance to alternative service is very strong. But our country needs these changes, and I'm willing to suffer for it."

Experts say the main reason Lebedev and some other regional leaders have begun to openly defy Moscow is that the popular groundswell on this issue is becoming hard to ignore.

But the traditionally promilitary public mood has only recently begun to soften. A February survey carried out by the independent Public Opinion Center among 1,600 Russians nationwide, found that just 27 percent want to keep conscription, down from 38 percent four years ago. In the same survey nearly two-thirds said Russia must build an all-volunteer army, compared to just over half in 1998.

Lebedev is more optimistic than many of the critics that acceptable terms will eventually be worked out. "Providing proper alternative service is in the best interests of the country, the regions and even the military," he says. "We will adjust our own local initiative to whatever federal law eventually comes down, but we will not abandon these boys."