The State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament Wednesday approved a preliminary draft law which would allow conscientious objectors to opt out of the military and do alternative service instead. The proposed legislation has been strongly criticized by military officers who fear it will cut down on the number of people serving in the military.

Russian legislators were choosing between three different plans regulating alternative service.

The main difference in the bills is the length of time men would have to serve. Under the government-sponsored bill that was approved by the State Duma, men who opted for alternative service would have to serve as much as four years. Under the other two versions, men would serve either two and a half or three years.

Supporters of alternative service say the government-sponsored version is actually a punishment since the time commitment required could be twice as long as regular military service.

Right now all Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27 are required to serve in the army for two years or in the navy for three.

But draft-dodging is the rule rather than the exception. Military analysts say only about 12 percent of those called up every year actually serve. Some of those who dodge military service are conscientious objectors. But many men are simply afraid of the army's brutal hazing or of being sent to fight in the breakaway region of Chechnya.

Military officials have protested the alternative service legislation, saying it will make it even harder for them to fill their ranks.

Supporters of alternative service disagree. They say those who do not want to serve in the military will now have another way to serve their country and as a result, will be less likely to dodge service altogether.

According to the Russian constitution, if a man has moral objections to serving in the military, he has the right to alternative service. But so far the parliament has failed to pass a law that would govern such questions as where the men would serve, for how long and who would qualify. So in reality, there is no way for men to actually do their alternative service.

The draft law approved Wednesday must still survive two more readings in the Duma before going on to the upper house of parliament.