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Russian draft collects `bums, real scum' as most defer dangerous military posts

MOSCOW—A certain amount of panic will take hold of Russia on Friday, when the country begins its annual military draft.

Generals will be panicked that they'll end up with another crop of druggies, convicts and misfits. Mothers will be terrified at handing over their sons to a military that's notorious for its brutal hazing of new recruits.

And tens of thousands of draft-age young men will fear for their lives as they face two years of menial labor, sadistic senior officers, and, worst of all, a possible deployment to Chechnya. Many will wangle phony deferments, fail to report or simply flee.

"What (the military) ends up with are the social fallouts, trigger-happy people, bums, the homeless, the real scum," said Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst in Moscow. "And they've all got guns."

Shootings of officers, desertions, suicides, alcoholism, torture in the barracks and drug abuse are rampant in today's Russian military, according to Felgenhauer and other experts.

Even the chief of the Russian general staff has said the military situation in Russia is "beyond critical"—not an encouraging comment given the country's huge nuclear arsenal, long-range missiles, and biological- and chemical-weapons depots.

All of which makes the annual draft critical to Russia's national security—and perhaps the world's.

"An unsound or unstable Russian military populated with dissolute officers and destitute troopers would be a global liability," said a senior U.S. official who asked for anonymity because he didn't wish to be seen as meddling in Russian affairs.

"Nobody should want to see any further degradation in the military here."

President Vladimir Putin has said that Russia, with its million-man military, can't afford an all-volunteer army, though planners are aiming for an equal mix of conscripts and volunteers by 2007.

Calls for young men to join are countered by an outcry over what many parents feel are the brutal conditions of Russian military life.

"I'm really stunned by the attitude of so many of our Russian women," said Maria Fedulova, whose son was drafted 10 years ago and sent to Chechnya. "The mothers of these boys are hypnotized. How can they let their sons go to the army? How could anyone?"

Fedulova works for the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, an anti-draft group that opposes Russia's use of military force in Chechnya. The Mothers are trying to start their own political party, and with a new draft season starting, they're busier than ever.

"The most terrible thing is that parents still believe the government propaganda," said Valentina Melnikova, the head of the Mothers committee.

"The adults still say that all kids should do military service. They bring them (to the recruiting station), hold a farewell party and they all drink vodka. Then three weeks later, when their kid has been beaten in the barracks, they show up in our office saying, `How could we know such an awful thing could happen?'"

The military's target this year is about 150,000 draftees, and recruiters are angry that once again they'll have to scrape the bottom of the social barrel to meet their quotas.

Senior military planners complain there are so many legal deferments that only 11 percent of draft-age men ever get inducted. And of those, only 30 percent are physically fit enough to get through boot camp.

In the 2003 draft, for example, 17 percent of draftees had various "psychic disorders." Another 14 percent were alcoholics, 7 percent had police records and 40 percent were high-school dropouts.

The ritualized hazing of recruits in their barracks kills several hundred young soldiers every year and traumatizes countless others. Closely held army reports say that a fourth of all non-combat deaths are suicides, and dozens of soldiers die each winter after overnight punishment sessions outdoors.

Draftees make about $5 a month, and many will find themselves doing menial chores or manual labor, such as building summer houses for senior officers. Many also sell their blood to get extra money.

So it's little wonder that draft-dodging is epidemic every spring.

An estimated 22,000 young men won't answer their draft notices this week—it's called a "summons" here—and tens of thousands of others will use phony medical exams, fake university enrollments or bribery to avoid serving.

When Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov recently floated the idea of ending student deferments, student groups immediately took to the streets in protest. Ivanov quickly backed off, although a major curtailment of deferments is being drafted in the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.

Some young men hurriedly join police forces or fire brigades to get deferments. Quickie "marriages" to single mothers aren't uncommon: Men with dependents also receive deferments. (Young women aren't subject to the draft.)

Andrei Nikolayev, a former army general and Duma member, said no more than 500 people ever tried to evade the draft in a given year during the Soviet era. Now the rate is 44 times higher.

Alternative service exists in Russia, but the term is three years, a year longer than the regular military hitch. Young men seeking alternative service also can be assigned to work as civilians—cleaning latrines or painting barracks—in the military units they were trying to avoid.

Maria Fedulova's zeal to stop the draft stems from her memories of her son, Denis, as a 19-year-old draftee. Denis had fired a weapon only three times in boot camps before he was sent to Chechnya. He worked mostly as a driver, collecting injured soldiers from battlefields, but she remembers him talking about hearing and feeling the crunch of bones as he drove over bodies.

When he was kidnapped by separatists in Chechnya, no one in the military told her. She learned it for herself after his letters stopped and she traveled to southern Russia to find him. An American journalist gave her the news, she said.

Eventually, her son was swapped for a rebel fighter in Russian hands and he came home. But the experience left him scarred. He didn't speak for two months, and he couldn't get a job.

"He's still like a time bomb, ready to go off," she said. As for her son, "he'd go to prison before he'd ever go back into the army."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): RUSSIA+DRAFT

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