Yesterday the State Duma adopted on third, and final, reading the law on alternative civilian service (AGS) proposed by the government. Voting for the document were 237 deputies (226 were required), with 109 opposed and one abstaining. There is a hope that within six months those young people who for some reason do not wish to serve in the army will be able to find a use for their energies in another sphere.
At the plenary session of the State Duma on Friday it became clear that the deputies would have to postpone their vacation at least one day. The duma voted to hold a supplementary session on 1 July. As the head of the Committee on Regulations, Oleg Kovalev ("Unity"), stated, the deputies had to adopt several tax laws on third, final reading. These laws are budgetary and the cabinet of Mikhail Kasianov was insisting on their adoption before the end of the spring session.
If the duma was able to deal with this technical question rather easily, work on laws on the eve of the vacation posed difficulties for the deputies. They managed to adopt the law on AGS on third reading only after stormy discussion. The SPS fraction [Rightist Forces] and "Yabloko" declared that they would vote as a bloc against this law. The reasons were stated by a representative of the rightists, a member of the Committee on Legislation, Alexander Barannikov: it seems that the law on AGS does not recognize the legal validity of the experiment on "alternative service" in Nizhny Novgorod. Besides, the rightists and Yabloko members think that the amendments "diluted" the meaning of alternative service. For example, Aleksei Arbatov was irritated that duma centrists—"Unity", OVR, "People’s Deputies" and "Regions of Russia"—"wish to make alternative service just as difficult as military service." "Striving to make the law on AGS as difficult as possible, we have made it as expensive and corrupt as possible," Arbatov declared.
The position of the rightists and Yabloko members seemed rather strange. The introduction of alternative civilian service was one of the basic preelection slogans of these parties. Yesterday they effectively refused to fulfil one of their key promises to voters. "In the discussion of this law some tried to deceive public opinion," declared the vice chairman of the "Unity" fraction, Vladislav Reznik. "Some thought that the choice will be not between service and the fulfilment of civic duty but between service and doing nothing. They even suggested buying one’s way out of the army. From the law’s title it is clear that the choice cannot be easy. Service in the army is a military obligation. The alternative to it can be only a civilian obligation, that is, performance of no less difficult and responsible work." Reznik said: "in our country people love to require of the government reliable protection, but they do not think of how to provide it. The law on AGS actually will save the military draft since the principles of the formation of the armed forces of Russia are still unchanged. To the extent that reform of the military is carried out, the law on alternative service can become more flexible."
What can a conscript expect from the law on AGS?
According to the law, a citizen has the right at the time of conscription to replace military service with alternative service, if military service contradicts his convictions or religious confession or if he is a member of a small, indigenous ethnic group. As a rule, citizens will perform AGS outside their own districts. The term of AGS has been set at 3.5 years or 21 months for persons with higher education. In the case where AGS is performed on the territory of military installations, the term of service is reduced to three years, or 18 months for persons with higher education.
Citizens are required to present their wish to substitute AGS for military service at a session of the draft commission. The application for substitution of alternative service for military service at the time of conscription must be presented by citizens to the draft commission by 1 April in the case of those who will be called up to military service in the fall of that year and by 1 October for those who will be called in the spring of the next year. The law establishes that persons who perform AGS will be kept on the military roster of the armed forces until age fifty. (tr. by PDS, posted 1 July 2002)
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Deputies of the House of Representatives of Belorussia adopted a new law "On freedom of conscience and religious organizations." It had been subjected to sharp criticism on the part of representatives of many religious confessions for its discriminatory nature; it reinforces "the determinative role of the Orthodox church in the historical formation and development of the spiritual, cultural, and state traditions of the Belorussian people." That is, it is effectively being considered the obligatory (or "desirable") state religion.
The chief lobbyist for the law was the Russian Orthodox church (RPTs); on the eve of the review of the draft of the law on the first reading a group of deputies was invited to the office of Metropolitan Filaret Vakhromeev of Minsk, where the film "Expansion" was shown, in which all other confessions were represented in the most unfavorable light. As a result, 85 deputies voted for adopting the law and two voted against it. The leader of the "Yabloko" Belorussian Public Association, Olga Abramova, declared that "deputies experienced unprecedented moral pressure." Before the discussion of the draft on second reading she left the chamber as a sign of protest, but she remained in the minority.
Meanwhile the vice speaker of the House of Representatives, Vladimir Konoplev, declared hypocritically: "We will not offend representatives of other religious confessions with this law and we are not affecting their activity." The offensiveness of the situation is intensified by the fact that, in contrast with Russia, in Belorussia there has historically been greater confessional diversity. The western regions that border on Poland have always been traditionally Catholic and Uniate to a substantial extent. In the opinion of experts on freedom of conscience, "the Belorussian experiment" will provide strength to the lobbyists for amending the existing Russian law "On freedom of conscience and religious associations." Recently RPTs has tried to make its statements more precise with an eye to gaining tax privileges for the commercial enterprises of RPTs and eliminating for itself ideological competition. (tr. by PDS, posted 1 July 2002)
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Yesterday representatives of the Society of Atheists of Moscow (ATOM) conducted a press conference to defend Russian science from obscurantism. Moscow atheists accused the Ministry of Education of violating the constitutional rights of atheists and the Russian Orthodox church of infringing upon freedom of conscience. The occasion for the press conference was an appeal "In defense of science" that was prepared by ATOM. In the opinion of its composers, in the past decade the country "has been swamped by a wave of obscurantism," and "adepts of clericalism have monopolized" ideology, philosophy and world view. And all of this has happened with the full support of the government. ATOM executive committee member Alexander Shchev called what is happening "an attack of the clergy on secular society" and accused the Russian Orthodox church of establishing control over Russian science. According to Mr. Shchev, the control consists in the way members of the clergy suggested a long time back introducing a "Fundamentals of Orthodox culture" course into the school curriculum. Moscow atheists consider that the neutral title conceals the real goals of the clerics. In reality they intend to make converts. According to Mr. Shchev, "zones of catechesis" have been created in several regions of the country. In November 2001 the administration of Moscow province concluded an agreement with the Moscow patriarchate of RPTs for teaching religious subjects in schools of the province. According to ATOM data, fundamentals of Orthodoxy already are being taught in Naro-Fominsk and Nogina districts. Even though the subject is being taught as a result of a decision by the school council and with the consent of pupils and their parents, the Moscow atheists consider this a case of discrimination and they propose introducing the parallel study of scientific atheism. Mr. Shchev directly accused Minister of Education Vladimir Fillipov of clericalization of Russian schools since "he is unable in any way to separate schools from the church." The initiative on the part of the government of Moscow province so upset members of ATOM that they filed suit in the Zamoskvorechie municipal court; to be sure, the court refused to consider it. Two residents of Moscow suburbs wanted to sue the government on the accusation that it is morally corrupting the children of Moscow province. However, it turned out the plaintiffs did not have any children of school age, and the suit was rejected.
ATOM chairman Alexander Krainev is upset that the clericalization of society is being conducted at the expense of ordinary citizens. Thus while churches are being constructed everywhere, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov is distributing monuments of architecture to ministers of the church. At the same time the Moscow Society of Atheists is unable to get even official registration in the Ministry of Justice.
In the opinion of Moscow atheists, the country can be saved only by a return to its materialistic world view of the soviet era. "Football, vodka, and church propaganda will lead the country to pogroms and battles as we saw on 9 June," Alexander Shchev declared.
The vice chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow patriarchate, Fr Vsevolod Chaplin, characterized the atheists’ statement in this way: "Organizations like ATOM unite either dissident intellectuals, who previously had fought for the regeneration of religion but now speak out against it, or people who think within the categories of soviet atheism. Unfortunately, ATOM members have not read the current Russian constitution. It does not contain a point that separates the state from religion as precisely as in earlier times. Teaching religious classes in the schools does not contradict the principles of a secular state. Nevertheless, we are talking about instruction on a voluntary basis. In European countries, with the exception of France and its particular ideology of the mutual relations of state and church, religion of one form or another is taught in state schools. In America, there are chaplains in both the army and the government. Religious associations and the state have developed a reasonable partnership. The demand that religion be banished completely from public life is a consequence of an exaggerated understanding of secularity that characterized totalitarian societies. Representatives of ATOM twist juridical concepts by defending the soviet model of relations between religious and society. Among the activists of the organization are participants in the dissident religious movements of the soviet period. Obviously these people suffer from a continual spiritual need to put up a fight. And for them it is not always important what they are fighting for." (tr. by PDS, posted 1 July 2002)
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