East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 2003, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Conscientious Objection in Post-Soviet States

Katy Morrow Stigers and Mark R. Elliott

Conscientious objection is recognized as a fundamental human right by the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the European Union (EU).(1) The EU requires its members to provide alternatives to military service and many EU states have eliminated conscription. Government policies among former Soviet Bloc states range from full acknowledgement of conscientious objector (CO) rights and provisions for civilian service to outright repression and persecution. Post-Soviet Bloc states have had just over a decade to come to terms with the CO issue that, until the collapse of Communism, was rarely given serious consideration. The region's new governments soon recognized the challenge of both ensuring military security and respecting conscientious objection as called for by the United Nations, OSCE, and the EU.

With no existing protection for religious rights, these nations sought to adopt Western legal norms for freedom of religious expression. But decades of religious repression, as well as a particularly authoritarian understanding of church-state relations, has caused tensions. For example, the required registration of religious organizations creates a hierarchy of religious groups, alternative service is implemented in a punitive manner, and COs are persecuted in many countries through outright harassment and imprisonment. In particular, Jehovah's Witnesses, who discourage loyalty to the state and reject military service, are the target of persecution for their CO stance.(2)

In the Baltic region (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), attitudes toward COs are benign and accommodating, with low levels of persecution for those who choose civilian service. The same is true in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland, whose accession into the European community as well as NATO involved close Western scrutiny. Balkan states, rocked by civil war for a decade, have made little headway with religious tolerance and spare little sympathy for pacifists. Many Serbs, for example, who fled to Hungary to avoid military service are unable to return because they were classified as deserters.(3)

The strongly nationalistic countries of Ukraine and Georgia have followed the model of their former master, Russia, acknowledging COs officially, but in practice and through additional legislation restricting religious groups due to fears they might undermine the authority of the state. Ukraine, however, may soon end the draft as it draws closer to joining NATO. In Central Asian countries, COs have had the most difficult situations due to a variety of factors including significant Muslim populations, lack of legal institutions empowered to enforce existing laws, and cultural prejudices against Christian groups.

The status of conscientious objectors is monitored throughout the world by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and such non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as War Resisters' International, Amnesty International, Keston Institute, and Norway's Forum 18 News Service. The information that follows concerning the current status of conscientious objectors in each former Soviet Bloc state reflects the work of human rights journalists, government publications, and NGOs and religious groups supportive of COs.

Albania does not recognize the right of conscientious objection to military service and makes no provisions for substitute service. It does exempt from military service those who pay the equivalent of $4,000 (US), which is beyond the means of the vast majority of young men. In 1996 four Jehovah's Witnesses served four to six month prison terms for refusing military service.(4)

Armenia's 1991 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations allows for implementing legislation for conscientious objection status and alternative service, but in practice, neither is permitted. Up to 1995 the military allowed some COs to perform non-combat duties, but that has become less frequent in recent years. Still, some Seventh-day Adventists have been granted the right to perform unarmed military service.(5) When Armenia joined the Council of Europe (COE) in 2001 it agreed to provide for alternative service before the end of 2003, but the pending legislative draft calls for a punitive term of service (42 months, versus 18 for military service). The COE and Armenia disagree as to whether the government is obliged to release COs currently in prison in anticipation of a new law on conscription. As of December 2002, Armenia was holding 25 Jehovah's Witnesses in prison for refusing military service.(6)

In 1991, while still part of the Soviet Union, the Azerbaijani Parliament passed a law permitting alternative service specifically for religious reasons. But this law was never publicized, never implemented, and presumably no longer is applicable.(7) The 1995 Constitution recognizes freedom of religion and the right to conscientious objection, but despite joining the Council of Europe in January 2001, the government continues to place restrictions upon freedom of conscience and to deny CO status in practice. COE membership requires that CO alternative service legislation be passed by December 2003.(8)

The 1994 Constitution makes provisions for alternative service for COs, but no implementing legislation has been passed. In some cases, military commanders have placed COs in construction battalions.(9) In 2002 the UN's rapporteur for human rights pointed out the government's lack of recognition of CO status, but noted that a new draft law was in progress.(10) The new 2003 Belarus law on religion is widely regarded as one of the most repressive in Europe.

The 1996 Law on Defense allows for CO status on religious grounds. Applicants given CO standing are required to perform two years of unarmed military service.(11)

The 1991 Constitution and the 1998 Law for Alternative Service provide for CO status.(12) The 1998 law specifies alternative service of two years, more than twice the length of regular military service, and sets an annual quota for COs. Most imprisonment for refusal of unarmed military service involves Jehovah's Witnesses.(13)

The 1990 Constitution provides for CO status on religious and moral grounds. Some COs have been taken to court for refusing service,(14) but alternative service is an option and was recently reduced from 15 to 9 months, versus 6 months for regular military service.(15) The European Bureau of Conscientious Objection considers Croatia and Slovenia the closest in the Balkans to European standards for treatment of COs.(16)

Czech Republic
Up to 1990 the state disallowed any right of conscientious objection. Nevertheless, informally, three years of service in subway construction or five years of work in coal mines were allowed to serve as substitutes for military service. As of 1989 approximately 50 Jehovah's Witnesses were in jail for refusing to bear arms. Following the collapse of the Communist regime in 1991, the government received 38,000 applications for CO status, most of which were granted. 1993 legislation continued provisions for CO status, but greatly tightened the process. Alternative service, when permitted, extends for 18 months, compared to 12 months for regular military service.(17)

The Constitution and the 1994 Law on Military Service provide for CO status on religious and ethical grounds. The term for alternative service is 12 months, the same as for military duty.(18)

The 1992 Law on Military Service includes a provision for non-military alternative service,(19) but a 1997 law permitting alternative service was not implemented for lack of finances. Corruption contributes to inconsistent application of the laws and a weak legal system impairs legitimate challenges. Journalist George Geguchadze suggested in the European Bureau of Conscientious Objection newsletter that if the legal infrastructure were in place to implement alternative service, desertions would decrease.(20) In recent years authorities have avoided public CO protests by calling up few Jehovah's Witnesses, a practice that is bolstering the group's popularity among draft-age men.(21)

Conscientious objection is not an issue in Hungary, particularly as the state moves closer to the EU and NATO.(22) The former Communist government disallowed CO status, but informally since the 1960s, some religious COs were permitted to opt for unarmed military service, including Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Nazarenes (not the U.S.-based church). At the same time, hundreds of religious COs served prison terms for refusing to perform unarmed military service. In the 1970s and '80s, Roman Catholic base communities advocated refusal of military service, with 30 members being imprisoned in 1979-89. In 1988 those imprisoned for refusing military service included 148 Jehovah's Witnesses, six Roman Catholics, and four objecting on non-religious grounds. The 1997 Civilian Service Law provides for CO status for religious and ethical reasons. Substitute service lasts for 15 months compared to nine months regular military service. Nine months of unarmed military service is also an option.(23)

The government does not recognize the right of conscientious objection and makes no provision for substitute service. However, imprisonment of COs who are Jehovah's Witnesses ended in 1997 when the state ruled that all members of this religion were "persons in holy orders" and therefore exempt from service.(24)

While the Kyrgyz Constitution does not provide for CO status, the 1994 Law on Alternative Service does, if objection to service is based on religious grounds. 2001 legislation shortened alternative service from 36 to 18 months and regular military duty from 24 to 12 months.(25)

Latvia passed a Law on Substitute Service in 1990 while it was still part of the Soviet Union, but this legislation does not appear to apply today. Amnesty International reported that a bill introducing a civilian alternative to military service was under consideration in 2001, but limited its scope to clergy or students preparing for ordination.(26) Seventh-day Adventists remain at odds with the government over their pacifist beliefs and objection to military service.

In theory, Lithuania's 1990 Law on Alternative Service appears to still be in effect, but practice is another matter. The 1990 law allows for CO status for members of "pacifist or religious organizations that forbid its members to bear arms." But the military insists that no such organizations exist in Lithuania. Very few citizens have applied for CO status since 1991. The 1992 Constitution also recognizes the right to conscientious objection, but again, implementation has not allowed for free exercise of this right.

Under the 1992 Defense Law, those who oppose bearing arms on religious grounds are permitted to perform unarmed military service for a period of 14 months.(27) Nevertheless, the country has come under scrutiny of the Macedonian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, which includes CO status among its concerns.(28)

The 1991 Alternative Service Act, passed while Moldova was still a part of the Soviet Union, appears still to be in force. It provides for substitute service on religious, pacifist, and political grounds. Many conscripts apply for and are permitted to perform substitute service for two years, twice the length of regular military duty.(29)

Conscientious objection status, which has had legal recognition since 1988, presently is granted under provisions of the 1992 Law on Civilian Service. CO status is permitted on religious and moral grounds, but in practice, only about 60 percent of CO applicants are allowed to perform alternative service. Enrollment commissioners for the military find that defining the constitutional standard of "religious conviction" and "professed moral principles" is very difficult and leads to abuse. Therefore, authorities are reluctant to grant applications, according to scholar Paul Marshall.(30) A War Resisters International study notes that the "Roman Catholic Church, which is very influential in Poland, does not approve of conscientious objection and in 1993 Bishop Orszulik said that conscientious objection on religious grounds was impossible and incompatible with Catholic beliefs. This attitude makes it very difficult for Roman Catholics to get CO status."(31)

The 1996 Law on the Preparation of the Population for Defense permits alternative service for conscientious objection exclusively on religious grounds. However, implementation was delayed for years, is punitive in length (24 months versus 12 months for military service), and strictly limits eligibility.(32) Since 1990 some conscripts opposed to bearing arms on religious grounds have been permitted to serve 24 months in non-combat units of the armed forces. A network of NGOs established the Coalition for Alternative Service in 1998 to promote alternative service for COs.(33) According to Amnesty International's 2002 report, COs are still threatened with imprisonment. Of the 16 Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned for refusing to bear arms as of 2001, 13 have had their sentences overturned in court. A number of COs have appeals pending before the European Court of Human Rights.(34)

At present, chaos reigns in government policy towards conscientious objectors. The 1993 Constitution provides for "alternative civil service" for COs. However, most courts have tried and sentenced objectors to prison in the absence of consistent implementing legislation. On the other hand, War Resisters' International reports that "some individual judges have decided to use the provisions of the constitution directly and dismiss criminal charges brought against COs." In 1996 the Russian Supreme Court ruled that "refusal to perform military service for religious convictions does not constitute a crime." But also in the 1990s lower courts sentenced at least 700 COs to two years' imprisonment for refusal to bear arms. Most COs come from large cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg where NGOs such as Soldiers' Mothers and the Antimilitaristic Radical Association counsel conscripts and offer legal support in a climate of growing weariness of the war in Chechnya. WRI reports that in some cases, COs have been permitted to serve in unarmed military units even though, in the absence of implementing legislation, this is not an actual right. COs assigned to construction battalions find themselves serving alternative service under especially brutal conditions in units often led by persons with criminal records.(35)

Legislation signed by President Putin in July 2002 makes provisions for alternative service. However, built-in military advantages, such as unarmed service in military forces being shorter than civilian alternative service, has led human rights groups to dub the legislation"the law on alternative slavery."(36) The Labor Ministry currently is gathering lists of alternative service work assignments from other government ministries in anticipation of the law going into effect 1 January 2004.(37) In response to growing antipathy toward military service, authorities have begun to include Orthodox priests on local draft boards because the Russian Orthodox faith supports military service.(38) On the other hand, clergy of "traditional" religions (Orthodoxy, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam) are exempt from military service.(39)

Slovak Republic
The 1992 Constitution grants the right of conscientious objection and the 1995 Civilian Service Act provides for CO status on religious and moral grounds. Substitute service, which at 24 months is double the length of military service, may be performed in civilian organizations or in the military, although the choice is not up to the individual CO.

The 1992 Constitution and the 1995 Military Service Law provide for conscientious objection in keeping with general European practice. CO status is granted on the basis of religious, philosophical, humanitarian, and ethical beliefs. Substitute service of seven months is the same as for military service.

The government makes no provision for either conscientious objector status or substitute service. Following independence in 1991, civil war led to large-scale draft evasion and desertion. Many young men seek work abroad to avoid conscription, although it is unclear how many do so as conscientious objectors.(40)

Despite its OSCE membership, Turkmenistan requires military service of all able-bodied men and refusal constitutes a criminal offense. No possibility of alternative civilian service exists.(41) Two Jehovah's Witnesses currently are imprisoned for conscientious objection and refusal to swear oaths of allegiance to the president. Amnesty International reported in 2002 that an 18-year-old Baptist, Dmitry Melnichenko, had been tortured for his refusal to bear arms. After international pressure was brought to bear, he eventually was allowed to serve in a medical unit.(42)

While the 1996 Constitution makes provision for non-military service for COs, the 1992 Alternative (Non-Military) Service Act recognizes only religious grounds for granting CO status. A further restriction permits the granting of CO status only to members of faiths that are officially registered with the government and whose creeds explicitly prohibit bearing arms.(43) Also, the Orthodox Church's support for military service in effect precludes CO status for most Orthodox. The length of substitute service, when permitted, is 36 months, twice the term of military service. Jehovah's Witnesses, who refuse unarmed service as well as military service, often receive convictions for their refusal to bear arms, for example, 41 between 1992 and 1994.(44) The government has expressed a commitment to achieving European and international standards on protection of the rights of conscientious objectors, but in practice still discriminates against non-religious objectors.(45)

The 1994 Constitution makes a theoretical concession to conscientious objectors, but the 1992 Law on Alternative Services makes it very difficult to obtain CO status. Only "members of religious groups that forbid their members to bear arms" are permitted to perform substitute service. Alternative service, when permitted, runs for two years and, oddly enough, requires two months of basic military training, including instruction in the use of weapons.(46) The payment of bribes is widespread to avoid military service, and for larger sums, alternative service as well.(47)

The 1992 Constitution provides for CO status and substitute service, but in practice the only CO option has been non-combat service within the military. The 1994 Army Law specifies religion and "other reasons for conscience" as the grounds for permitting non-combat service, which lasts for 24 months, twice the length of regular military duty. Women in Black, a Belgrade peace group, supports conscientious objectors and publishes the magazine Objection. In 2001 Amnesty International reported that a law had passed providing immunity to conscientious objectors who had fled the wars of 1992-2000. In June 2001 a petition with 30,000 names advocated an option of civilian alternative service. Compulsory service has been reduced to nine months and alternative service in non- combatant sections of the military has been reduced to 13 months, but these changes still do not meet OSCE Helsinki standards.(48) War Resisters' International has criticized the Yugoslav government for refusing to provide a genuine alternative service option. It is unclear how many objectors who fled to Hungary will return to Serbia under the amnesty provision since they will likely face hostility from individuals who remained during the war.(49)

Katy Morrow Stigers, who earned a B.A. in political science at King College, Bristol, TN, served as an intern in fall 2002 in the Global Center, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, AL. Mark R. Elliott is director of the Global Center, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, and editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

Source Abbreviations and Web Sites
AI - Amnesty International 2002 Annual Report, http://web.amnesty.org/web/ar2002.nsf/eur

ARIRF - Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2001/index.htm

FR - For the Record 2001: The United Nations Human Rights System, Vol. 5, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2001/index.htm

KNS - Keston News Service

The Right - The Right to Refuse to Kill, 2 January 2001, http://teleline.terra.es/personal/beoc.ebco

WRI, Refusing - War Resisters' International, Refusing to Bear Arms: A Worldwide Survey of Conscription and Conscientious Objection to Military Service, Conscription and Conscientious Objection Documentation Project, 1998-2001, http://wri-irg.org.en/index/html (Access to the full English edition is restricted to readers who apply for a password.)

1. Karen S. Lord, "What, Exactly, IS Religious Freedom," East-West Church and Ministry Report 6 (Summer 1998), 15-16.
2. "Jehovah's Witnesses Beliefs--Role in Society: Neutrality," http://www.jw-media.org/beliefs/society.htm.
3. Bojan Aleksov, "Serbian Deserters in Hungary Face a New Dilemma," The Right.
4. WRI, Refusing.
5. "Ibid."
6. Silke Makowski, "An Unrecognized Human Right: Conscientious Objection in the Caucasus and Central Asia," The Broken Rifle No. 56 (November 2002), 6; WRI,"Armenia: Conscientious Objector Artur Grigoryan Sentenced to 2-1/2 Years in Prison," ARM 12801-051202, 05/12/02; "Armenia," 2001 ARIRF; Felix Corley, "Armenia: Prime Minister Widens Council of Europe Defiance," KNS, 25 September 2002.
7. WRI, Refusing.
8. Makowski, 6.
9. "Ibid."
10. "Belarus," 2002 ARIRF; "Belarus," FR.
11. WRI, Refusing.
12. Paul Marshall, Religious Freedom in the World (Nashville, TN: Freedom House, 2000), 89.
13. "Ibid.", 90; "Bulgaria," 2002 ARIRF.
14. WRI, Refusing.
15. Drazen Glavas to author, 19 December 2002.
16. EBCO Seminar in Belgrade, 14-16 September 2001.
17. WRI, Refusing.
18. "Ibid."
19. "Ibid."
20. George Geguchadze, "What is Going On? Georgia," The Right.
21. Makowski, 6.
22. "Hungary," 2002 ARIRF; Marshall, Religious Freedom, 154; Bojan Alexsov, "Serbian Deserters in Hungary Face New Dilemma," The Right.
23. WRI, Refusing.
24. Makowski, 7.
25. "Ibid."; WRI, Refusing.
26. "Latvia," AI; WRI, Refusing.
27. "Macedonia," FR.
28. WRI, Refusing.
30. Marshall, Religious Freedom, 254.
31. WRI, Refusing.
32."Romania," 2002 ARIRF.
33. WRI, Refusing.
34. "Romania," AI.
35. WRI, Refusing.
36. Makowski, 6.
37. Simon Saradzhyan, "Alternative Service Wish List Drawn Up," Moscow Times, 2 December 2002.
38. Maria Kulagina, "Nearly Ten Percent of Youth Conscientious Objectors," Moskovskaia pravda, 31 October 2002, Russia Religion News, http://www.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/0210d.html.
39. Nadezhda Kevorkova, "Military Deferment for Russian Clergy," Gazeta, 29 January 2003, "Ibid."
40. Makowski, 7.
41. "Turkmenistan," 2002 ARIRF.
42. "Turkmenistan," AI; Felix Corley, "Turkmenistan: New Deadline for Conscripted Baptist," KNS, 7 June 2001.
43. "CO Case in Ukraine," The Right.
44. WRI, Refusing.
45. Marshall, Religious Freedom, 308. The Amnesty International article which Marshall cites,"Out of the Margins: the Right to Conscientious Objection to Military Service in Europe" (http://web.amnesty.org/ai.nsf/Index/EUR010021997?OpenDocument&of=COUNTRIES\UKRAINE), is a comprehensive overview through 1997 of European government policies on CO.
46. WRI, Refusing.
47. Makowski, 7.
48. "Federal Republic of Yugoslavia," AI.
49. Igor Seke, "Yugoslavia: New Law, But Nothing's New," The Broken Rifle No. 55 (May 2002), 3-4.

Katy Morrow Stigers and Mark R. Elliott, "Conscientious Objection in Post-Soviet States," East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Summer 2003), 6-10.

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