An unrecognised human right: Conscientious objection in the Caucasus and Central Asia

by Silke Makowski

In the region of Caucasus and Central Asia, no country offers a free choice between military service and alternative service, most of them even having no legal basis for a substitute service at all. The few states that passed a law on some kind of alternative service haven't implemented it according to international standards: in Georgia, substitute service isn't available in practice and in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, large bribes are necessary to perform it. Apart from that, these services are of rather punitive length and not completely civilian, especially the Uzbek one as it includes a short military training.

Being members of the Council of Europe (CoE), the Caucas states have to meet the conscientious objection standards of Recommendation 1518, which was adopted in 2001. It declares the right of all members of the army to be registered as conscientious objectors (COs) at any time and to be informed about the circumstances and procedure of obtaining the status of a CO, also recommending a completely civilian and non-punitive alternative to military service. Although the member states should guarantee those rights, the Georgian law shows many shortcomings, while Armenia and Azerbaijan haven't passed any law so far.



Legislation originally didn't provide the right to conscientious objection but, as a result of its membership in the CoE, the Armenian government has to pass a law on alternative service by 2003.

Two different bills have been discussed during recent months without being passed. Both versions of the envisaged alternative service are punitive in length (42 months, i.e. 18 months longer than military service) as well as in professional restrictions: people who have performed alternative service are precluded from holding official posts. It would also be available for certain religious groups only and take place within the army, thus being a kind of unarmed military service.

During recent years, persecution has even increased, and COs normally face several years' prison terms. After a CoE requirement, the Armenian government pardoned and released 37 Jehovah's Witnesses in June 2001, but new trials followed shortly afterwards. According to the Ministry of Justice, in 2001, 75 people were found guilty of "avoiding military service", 32 of them being Jehovah's Witnesses.

At the moment, at least 25 Jehovah's Witnesses are imprisoned in Armenia.


The right to perform alternative military service on grounds of belief is included in the Azeri 1995 Constitution. Yet decrees regulating alternative military service never have been implemented.

Due to its CoE membership, Azerbaijan has to provide the right to conscientious objection. An amendment to the Constitution replacing the former phrase of "alternative military service" by "alternative service" is in force since a referendum in August and a new law on alternative service is going to be passed by December. Detailed information about the envisaged service isn't available so far and it isn't certain that if the law will be implemented soon. At the moment there are no cases of imprisoned COs, and investigations against two Jehovah's Witnesses have been stopped because of the legal changes. About 2,600 deserters and draft evaders are in prison but nothing is known about their reasons of avoiding military service.


Although different laws on alternative service have been passed since 1991, none has been implemented. The latest Law on Civilian Alternative Service, passed in 1997, also doesn't meet the CoE standards, as the envisaged substitute service is of punitive length (36 months, compared to 24 months' military service) and probably not completely civilian.

In practice no impartial decision-making procedures for applying for substitute service have been established yet, although more than 300 people have requested arrangements for alternative service. Exemption from military service can only be gained by bribery.

During recent years, Georgian authorities often haven't called up Jehovah's Witnesses in order to avoid open conscientious objection. As most young men don't want to serve- mainly because of the poor conditions within the army-the number of Jehovah's Witnesses in Georgia has increased rapidly.

According to the Ministry of Defence, there are 167 draft evaders and deserters in prison at the moment but it isn't clear if any of them had conscientious objections.


The 1994 Constitution of the self-declared republic of Abkhazia, which isn't internationally recognised but regarded as a Georgian region, doesn't include the right to an alternative to military service, and in spite of discussions about a law on a civilian substitute service last year there have been no further developments.

Between 1995 and 2000, at least 30 Jehovah's Witnesses have been imprisoned for refusing to serve in the army, one of them being still in prison in December 2001.

Central Asia


The right to conscientious objection isn't legally recognized and there are no provisions for substitute service. Various discussions about alternative army service didn't aim at a civil alternative but at flexibility within military service, combining a short military training with different kinds of labour.

Persecution of COs, especially Jehovah's Witnesses, had been a continual problem for many years. As the Military Service Act allows "persons in holy orders" to be exempted from military service, the Kazakh Jehovah's Witnesses came to an agreement with the government in 1997 declaring all members of their faith religious ministers. Since then, there haven't been any reports about imprisoned COs.


Alternative service has a comparatively long tradition in Kyrgyzstan with a first law being passed in 1992. The 2001 Law on Alternative Service shortened the length of substitute service from 36 to 24 months, while the military service term was reduced from 24 to 12 months this year.

According to the new law, substitute service can be performed in a non-military state institution; 20 per cent of the salary is transferred to the Ministry of Defence. Performing alternative service is widespread: In spring 2001, over 70 per cent didn't want to serve in the army and nearly half of the 3,500 conscripts were called up for alternative service. In addition to that, the continually increasing number of desertions proves to be an enormous problem for the only 12,000-strong Kyrgyz army.

In November 2001, there was a case of a CO being harassed by the Kyrgyz authorities: Baptist Dmitri Shukhov was sent for a psychiatric investigation after his refusal to swear the military oath. Officials had claimed before that he was ineligible for alternative service because his church refuses to register.


The right to conscientious objection isn't included in Tajik legislation; consequently there's no legal basis for performing any kind of substitute service at the moment and it won't be introduced during the coming years.

Nothing is known about people refusing to perform military service on religious or ethical grounds but desertion and draft evasion are widespread. An increasing number of young men avoid military service by going abroad to look for work. The extent of desertion even made it necessary to include deserters in a 2001 amnesty if they were willing to serve afterwards.


Turkmen legislation doesn't provide for the right to refuse military service and a law on a civilian alternative doesn't seem probable during the next few years.

COs, mostly members of the Jehovah's Witnesses and similar religious groups, face several years' imprisonment under criminal law and often serve their sentences in labour colonies under harsh conditions. In lots of cases, release has been denied if the pri-soners refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the president on grounds of conscience.

In September 2002 at least 2 Jehovah's Witnesses were imprisoned because of their conscientious objection.


The 1992 Law on Alternative Service provides a substitute service of 24 months on religious grounds. Actually it isn't possible to perform it without bribery; if the bribe is high enough it is even possible to avoid both kinds of service. Substitute service is very popular: the number of people called up for alternative service is more than three times higher than the number of those serving in the army.

The so-called alternative service isn't civilian as it also includes two months' basic military training. During the rest of the time it normally entails doing low-paid menial work with about 20 per cent of the salary transferred to the Ministry of Defence.

At the moment there are discussions about a new law on alternative service but a bill hasn't been prepared yet.

In practice COs who don't pay bribes are still punished: every year, several Jehovah's Witnesses are sentenced to suspended terms of imprisonment or high fines.

Situation in the army

In the former Soviet republics military service is quite unpopular due to the bad conditions, which are growing even worse. Food shortages, delayed wages, illnesses, and violations of basic human rights by officers are widespread, and continual fights with rebel troops in several regions make military service even more dangerous. This situation leads not only to a high suicide rate among recruits but also to an increase of different methods of avoiding service, including bribery, draft evasion, and desertion.

New CO law in Russia

Finally, in summer 2002, the Russian state Duma passed a law on alternative service, which regulates the right to conscientious objection. It was finally signed by Pre-sident Putin on 28 July 2002, and will come into force on 1 January 2004. What on first view might be seen as a victory for CO groups looks very much like an attempt by the military apparatus to keep matters under control.

According to article 4 of the new law, alternative civil service can be performed-among other options-in organisations of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and other forces, as non-combatant person-nel. On top of that, the length of service is 1.75 times that of military service (but "only" 1.5 times in the case of service in the armed forces).

The procedure to apply for alternative civilian service is also very restrictive: an application has to be made 6 months before call-up (which means at the age of 17), and needs to be accompanied by quite some paperwork. On top of that, personal appearance in front of the draft commis-sion is required-an act of inquisition.

Organisations in Russia are now campaigning against the law on alternative civil service. It will be challenged in the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation. Human rights organisations termed the bill "the law on alternative slavery", and promote the abolition of conscription in Russia as the real alternative.


Add new comment

Enter the characters shown in the image.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

We have had a kind offer from an individual donor, who will match up to £5,000 of donations from others - so by supporting War Resisters' International today your donation is worth double!