By Chris Baldwin
MOSCOW, Oct 1 (Reuters) - Russia’s military said on Monday it would ask members of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, a stern critic of the armed forces and their treatment of conscripted soldiers, to serve on each of its draft boards.
The military has previously been hostile towards the Soldiers’ Mothers, accusing the group of deliberately undermining the forces’ reputation.
"We want them to be a permanent part of the process, to work on the commission where they will have a decisive voice," Colonel-General Vasily Smirnov, the military’s head of recruitment told a news conference.
Young Russian men are required to serve 18 months in the military, but the armed forces’ reputation for bullying and abuse mean draft-dodging is rife.
Hazing by older soldiers called "dedovshchina", or "rule of the elders" is commonplace, sometimes resulting in death or serious injury. Last year doctors had to amputate a soldier’s legs and genitals after he was punished by drunk sergeants and neglected by military doctors during New Year’s holidays.
The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, formed in 1989, won prominence in 1995 as a persistent critic of the first Chechen war. Since then the Soldiers’ Mothers have become the most outspoken advocate for conscripts’ rights.
They have received runaway soldiers, called attention to cases of abuse, neglect and corruption, and offered legal advice that has led to criminal cases against senior officers.
A spokeswoman for the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers said that while a few regional military commissariats had reached out to include a Soldiers’ Mothers committee member, the 33 Moscow draft boards had so far made no such offer.
"We wouldn’t be against sitting on the draft board, we have been asking for this for years. But so far we haven’t heard anything," said Lyudmila Vorobyeva of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers’ Moscow office.
President Vladimir Putin has made military reform a top priority during his time in office, pouring billions of dollars into infrastructure and weapons systems.
State-run television has created military-themed soap operas extolling the virtues of honourable service, and subway advertisements call on able-bodied men to join the professional ranks while they are still young and strong.
But the prospect of serving any length of time in the army still fills many 18-year olds with dread, with many going great lengths to avoid it. Only about 9 percent of those eligible for conscription answer their draft notice.
Parents pay bribes of up to several thousand dollars to get their sons out of serving, while others seek educational or medical deferments.
In 2004, then-Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov proposed ending student deferrals, saying it would help achieve President Vladimir Putin’s goal of cutting military service to one year from two by 2008 and making half the army career soldiers.