War Resisters' International visit to Russia

Late in February, two War Resisters' International activists visited several groups in Russia - from Moscow to Yekaterinburg. During the course of the visit, WRI met with a range of anti-war and human rights groups, to discuss the situation in Russia, especially regarding the right to conscientious objection, and activism against war and militarism.

Although a law on conscientious objection came into force on 1 January 2004, the implementation of the law leads to a range of problems, which confirm the concerns raised by War Resisters' International in its report from September 2003, and by the United Nations Human Rights Committee in its concluding observations from 6 November 2003. The Human Rights Committee then noted that "the law does not appear to guarantee that the tasks to be performed by conscientious objectors are compatible with their convictions".

War Resisters' International talked to a number of conscientious objectors serving in substitute service in the Kazan gunpowder factory, which underlines these concerns. Not only have several objectors initially been required to serve in the gunpowder production itself - under the disguise that the gunpowder is being used for civilian fireworks - it can also be questioned if any service in this factory can be classified as "genuinely civilian", as required by international standards.

The conditions under which most groups in Russia have to work are more than worrying. For those groups who wish to work as registered NGOs, the regulations of the new NGO law impose bureaucratic requirements, which only larger organisations are able to comply with. All groups face harassment by police, secret service, and authorities in the carrying out of their activities. In addition, some groups face violent attacks from fascist youth groups, which in recent years saw several people dead or seriously injured. Most recently, on 31 March Stanislav Korepanov died of his injuries following a violent confrontation with fascists in Izhevsk on 27 March 2007.

However, on a more positive note, it was encouraging to meet groups of young and not-so-young activists in Moscow, St Petersburg, Nizhni Novgorod, Kazan, and Yekaterinburg. Although many of the groups complained about a lack of information on issues such as nonviolence and antimilitarism, they make up for this with enthusiasm and creativity. Still, many of these groups only represents a tiny minority on the margins of Russian society, which is becoming increasingly nationalist and racist.

Unrelated to this, the spring draft in Russia began on 2 April, with the first call-up to a reduced military service of 18 months, instead of two years. In 2008, the service will be shorted even further to 12 months. However, this comes at the price of a reduction in exemptions from military service for health and other reasons - meaning that the military authorities aim to recruit a higher proportion of young men at conscription age than in the past. In addition, the Russian military aims to recruit more contract soldiers in an effort to modernise and professionalise the military. However, many of these contract soldiers are conscripts are forced into extending their term of service by signing contracts, often under duress. The Soldiers' Mothers' Committees also report random arrests and harassment of men at conscription age, often in order to extract bribes for their release, and not necessarily with the aim to recruit.