Kremlin Uses Military Draft To Curb Foes, Activists Say

Protester Oleg Kozlovsky, 23, was sent off to a year in the army.
Protester Oleg Kozlovsky, 23, was sent off to a year in the army. (Mikhail Dorozhkin - For The Washington Post)

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By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 26, 2008

MOSCOW, Jan. 25 -- For two years, Oleg Kozlovsky has been a fixture at anti-Kremlin street demonstrations, confronting riot police and just as often getting arrested. One of the leaders of a youth movement called Oborona (Defense), Kozlovsky, a 23-year-old graduate student at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, said his group's goal is nothing less than the "downfall of the authoritarian regime."

"The police system has not been able to cope with this small yet cohesive and dedicated group," Kozlovsky wrote last year on a blog. "Oborona has now been transformed into a serious political force."

But the system, as Kozlovsky calls it, has finally silenced him. Late last month, Kozlovsky was picked up by police, taken to a military conscription office and quickly shipped to a military base to serve a year in the army. He and friends say his status as a student legally exempts him from service.

Authorities are increasingly using the threat of the draft to intimidate the small but hard-nosed community of young activists who oppose President Vladimir Putin, according to opposition and human rights activists. Service in the army, which has a well-documented history of violent and sometimes fatal hazing, is feared by many young Russians, not just those who oppose the government.

"All young people understand the repressive character of our army, so it's a real threat," said Pavel Shaikin, a member of Oborona. "And in Oleg's case, I think they wanted to take him out of circulation before the presidential elections."

Russia will elect a new president March 2, but opposition groups have pledged to take to the streets to protest what they see as Putin's determination to allow no challenge, however marginal, to the election of his chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, the country's first deputy prime minister.

The group Citizen and the Army, which opposes the draft and wants a volunteer army in Russia, said that in the past year it has documented dozens of cases of young political activists being taken to conscription offices. In nearly all cases, the draftees had a history of joining protests led by Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster, and his ally Eduard Limonov, head of the outlawed National Bolshevik Party.

"Illegally drafting people is not new, and it's happening all over the place. But the political motivation is a new tactic," said Maxim Burmitsky, head of legal defense at Citizen and the Army. "Kozlovsky's case is finally drawing some welcome attention to a serious problem."

Just this month, Burmitsky said, at least four cases came before the courts involving young activists appealing their conscriptions. In the city of Pskov, near Russia's border with Estonia, a court is hearing the appeal of two National Bolsheviks who were drafted despite their claims that they are legally exempt. And in Novokuznetsk, in southwestern Siberia, two young people who call themselves anarchists are involved in a similar hearing.

Kozlovsky said in an interview with a Russian publication that his problem began Dec. 20 as he was leaving an apartment in Moscow. He was approached by a police officer, who told Kozlovsky he had to go to a military enlistment office to "solve a few problems." Two plainclothes officers were waiting nearby in a police car, he said.

"None of them would show me their identity documents," Kozlovsky told Generation P, a Russian newspaper, which reached him by telephone. "I was later informed that the two in plainclothes were FSB agents." The FSB is the domestic successor to the KGB security service.

The Generation P interview was posted on the English-language blog La Russophobe, which along with Russian human rights groups, including the Moscow Helsinki Group and For Human Rights, has taken up Kozlovsky's cause.

Kozlovsky said he was subjected to a quick medical examination at the enlistment office, then taken to a military base just outside Moscow. When supporters rushed to the base, he was taken to a military facility in Ryazan, about 150 miles southeast of Moscow.

Military officials declined to discuss the case.

Kozlovsky and his allies say that as a full-time student who trained in Russia's reserve forces when he was an undergraduate at Moscow State University, Kozlovsky was legally exempt from serving. Moreover, they assert, problems with the veins in his legs make him medically unfit for the draft.

That claim was confirmed by doctors at the military base. "They've gone by the book, conducting themselves with honor and seeking to rectify the transgressions of their Moscow colleagues," Kozlovsky said.

But higher-ranking officials in Moscow ordered what will be a third medical examination, to be held Monday. Kozlovsky said he expects to be discharged from the army quickly, and promised to resume his political activity.

His conscription, he said, "only increases my confidence and commitment that I'm on the right path, because somebody wants to put me off it."

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