Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

"Learning" to Offer an Alternative to Military Service: Norm Adoption in Russia

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

"Learning" to Offer an Alternative to Military Service: Norm Adoption in Russia

Article excerpt

Abstract: Nearly a decade after the adoption of the Russian constitution, in June 2002, the Duma finally passed legislation on the status of the country's conscientious objectors. Employing a framework of learning and behavioral change, this article traces the origins of the law, discussing what happened and why.

Key words: conscientious objection, Council of Europe, human rights, learning, norms, Russia


When adopting Russia's current constitution in a nationwide referendum on December 12, 1993, the Russian electorate also voted in favor of offering conscientious objectors (COs) an alternative to traditional military service. As stated in Article 59 (3) of the constitution, "the citizen of the Russian Federation whose convictions and faith are at odds with military service ... shall have the right to the substitution of an alternative civil service for military service." (1)

It was ten years later, however, beginning on January 1, 2004, that Russian conscripts would be offered the alternative otherwise guaranteed by the constitution. Moreover, the members of the Duma declared that this part of the "Rights and Liberties of Man and Citizen" (ch. 2 of the constitution) should have the duration of the alternative service exceed that of traditional service--from a standard twenty-tour months to thirty-six or even a full forty-two months (for those performing civil service within the military and nonmilitary sectors, respectively). (2)

The adoption of the new law, which still leaves Russia open to criticism of discrimination, has clearly been a difficult and painful process for Russian policymakers. In this article, I trace the origins of the law and explain why it appeared when it did and why it appeared in the shape that it did.

The study proceeds in four main steps. First, drawing on what is a rapidly expanding body of literature, I briefly outline relevant theories on social learning. Employing a basic distinction between "simple" and "complex" learning, I explain how cognition may reflect two principally different processes of policy transformation--one in which the means change, but the underlying assumptions remain intact and one in which the means change as fundamental values and belief systems are altered. (3)

Second, I go over the process leading to the adoption of the law. Well before 2002, strong pressure existed to pass legislation on the issue but, as demonstrated here, various Duma majorities prevented this for more than eight years. Domestically, the main source of the pressure was Article 59 (3) itself, the continued neglect of which was a constant reminder for critics of the relatively illiberal nature of post-Soviet Russia. (4) Internationally, it was primarily generated by Russia's membership application to--and subsequent acceptance into--the Council of Europe (CoE). The central role played by this organization is explained not only by the strong human rights dimension of its work, but also because it remains the only major European security organization of which Russia has actually earned membership. (5)

Third, I link the first two sections, offering answers to the puzzles raised earlier. I suggest that the law on alternative service is primarily the product of a simple learning process. Although there seems to have been a growing recognition among Russian politicians concerning the importance of meeting international standards of conduct, the particular norm underlying the offer of alternative service clearly has not been fully internalized. In fact, it seems that there was a conscious effort made to ensure that the law meets a minimal interpretation of the letter of earlier commitments only. The members of the Duma, simply put, were more concerned about the interests of Russia than about those of the COs.

This, I argue in the final section, does not necessarily represent a failure on the part of either domestic critics or the international community. …

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