In Russia, conscription is a weapon for silencing dissent

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MOSCOW (AFP) – In December 2019, police officers came to Ruslan Shaveddinov’s Moscow apartment, sawed through the door and placed him in handcuffs before whisking him away for forced military service in the Arctic.

Denied access to a cell phone – a rule violation, according to the 25-year-old opposition activist – he had to correspond with his loved ones via handwritten letters that took weeks to arrive.

“They sent me as far away as possible,” the ally of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny told AFP.

Sequestered for one year to a military post accessible only by helicopter and surrounded by roaming polar bears, Shaveddinov said he and the other four soldiers at the base even had to melt snow for drinking water.

“It was like I had been exiled, with no connection to the outside world, in these unliveable conditions,” he recalls.

While military service is mandatory in Russia, with more than 250,000 men between the ages of 18 and 27 conscripted each year, many Russians get out of it through medical or educational exemptions. Some also simply ignore the summons or pay bribes.

But for those harbouring opposition sympathies, avoiding service is a more complicated endeavour.

The opposition and rights activists say conscription in recent years has become another weapon in the authorities’ arsenal in their drive to silence dissent.

In Shaveddinov’s case, authorities had taken an interest in him that summer when Navalny’s aides organised protests in Moscow demanding fair elections.

They also riled authorities that autumn by launching a voting strategy that saw Kremlin-linked candidates lose races in local polls.

Shaveddinov says he provided proof he was medically unfit for military service, though his appeals were shut down three times.

‘Punishment without crime’

But Shaveddinov says he didn’t think his activism could result in forced conscription, in what he likened to the Soviet-era practice of exiling dissidents to the Gulag network of labour camps.

“It was impossible to imagine that such a practice would return to Russia,” he said. “That politically undesirable people would be sent into exile.”