MOSCOW -- The Soviet Union, in one of the most radical steps yet toward demilitarizing society, has ended the practice of drafting college students into the army before they complete their educations.
The end of the college draft, a system hated by students, was announced Thursday in a series of commentaries in Soviet newspapers, and followed boycotts of compulsory military education classes in several cities last month.
The end of the despised practice came about six weeks after Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan and fits in with President Mikhail Gorbachev's announcement in December to cut the size of the military by 500,000 soldiers -- 12 percent of the armed forces.
To meet the cuts, the Kremlin is planning to scale back the national military draft by 25 percent.
Each year, the Soviet Union has drafted 2 million men over the age of 18 into the armed forces. A mainly conscript army, only about 1 million of the 5 million-strong military are professional soldiers.
'Beginning this spring 1989, Soviet students will be exempt from conscription through their period of studies,' Gennady Kutsev, a senior education official, told the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.
Kutsev also said that military training programs in the academic year starting next fall would be 'substantially trimmed down' as part of the new regulations, and that such programs for female students will continue only at medical colleges.
In the Izvestia government newspaper, Gen. G. Krivosheyev said, 'Soviet students will be given deferments to complete their studies,' ending the practice of drafting students after their first year in the university.
The acutal decree granting exemptions to fulltime students has not yet been published. But Vladimir Kuzar, an editor at the Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, said: 'If there are commentaries about the measure, it means it must have been adopted.'
Student sources said the draft was seen as a constant threat that not only interrupted their college education, but in many cases ended it. One source said at least 40 percent of those drafted during college never returned to finish their educations.
College rectors also criticized the practice of taking students away from their studies for two or three years, saying it was wasteful and ultimately hurt the economy.
From Feb. 6-8, students from 90 colleges in 45 cites gathered in Leningrad to demand an end to the college draft and to announce a one-week boycott of compulsory military education classes.
Dissidents said that the weeklong boycott actually fizzled in most cities -- with exceptions like Novosibirsk -- but they noted that the Ministry of Defense had responded to the students' concerns by cutting down on military classes.
The obligatory instruction in colleges has made the Soviet Union one of the world's most heavily militarized societies. Basic military instruction actually starts in the 9th and 10th grades, though females are exempted from the courses, called 'Primary military training.'
Since last year, Soviet generals have engaged in a debate on the feasibility of a volunteer army, but the current thinking garnered from debates on morning radio shows is that such a small professional force would be too expensive.