You’re In The Army Now: Why Post-Soviet Countries Preserve Military Conscription
22 August, 2017

Every spring, thousands of conscripts fill the ranks of the armed forces of independent states, including those who were once a part of the USSR. For the past 25 years, the armies of former republics in the European side of the Soviet Union have become professional. This would seem a logical step as modern warfare rarely demand direct confrontation with the enemy, but better-equipped, mobile, and well-trained troops.

However, the majority of former Soviet republics have not fully abandoned compulsory military service. Compulsory military service has also been preserved in several European countries — for example, Norway, Finland, and Greece.

As part of the joint, Russian-language media project “Mediaseti,” we analyzed the experiences of nine post-Soviet countries — Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, and Estonia — and found seven reasons why conscription still exists.

Trainee in the Estonian army. Photo credit: Daniil Zhilinskii, Novaya Gazeta (Baltics)

1. Cheap Recruits

Officials claim that it is more expensive to maintain a professional army than to train short-term conscripts to handle weapons and then replace them with others. However, “cheap” conscripts are not a real army.

In Georgia, Jam News reported that every fourth recruit who enters the armed forces spends most of his time protecting private property for 75 laris ($30) a month. Professional military personnel in Georgia receive around $400. The continued draft in the country is surprising because a career in the Georgian Military is considered prestigious. Contract soldiers take part in NATO operations.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Georgia’s maintaining a 37,000-person semi-conscripted army cost approximately $83 per capita in 2015. Comparatively, Serbia spends $82 per capita for a completely professional army of the same size.

Moldova, rocket launcher. Photo credit: Ziarul de Garda

2. Expenses of Modernization

If a country’s economy is unstable, a professional army may prove expensive. Besides increasing military salaries, the state must invest more money into modernizing weapons, effectively allocate funds, and reduce the size of its armed forces.

Poland faced this challenge after the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact in 1991. At the time, its army totaled 450,000 people. However, in the next 25 years, Poland reduced the size of its armed forces four-fold. In 2010, it even fully abandoned conscription. Prior to eliminating compulsory service, Poland spent 1.95 percent of its GDP on the military, half of which went to maintaining personnel and pensions.

Moldova, trainee in the War Academy. Photo credit: Ziarul de Garda

3. External Threats

In the event of an external threat from a stronger enemy, a professional army may not be enough to protect the country. Ukraine was also guided by this argument.

In 2013, Ukraine suspended conscription. But in 2014, after the Russian annexation of Crimea, the country reinstated conscription and further announced the mobilization of reservists.

Although there is an active conflict on Ukrainian territory, conscripts are apparently not the backbone of the Ukrainian army. As Hromadske reported, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces believes that the main task of conscription is to create an efficient reserve and give young people an impression of the army so that they might consider becoming professional militarymen.

The Russian threat has also caused other countries in the region to reconsider how they run their armed forces. This year, Sweden decided to partially reinstate conscription, which it had abandoned seven years prior. Lithuania, a member of NATO, reinstated conscription in 2015. In Latvia, restoring conscription is also a popular idea, but so far, military service there remains voluntary, reports Baltic Novaya Gazeta.

Nonetheless, a big army isn’t necessarily an effective one. As a result of the Georgian campaign in 2008, Russia instituted a series of military reforms. The Russian Kommersant Vlast magazine reported that only 17 percent of the entire military was fully prepared for action following the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. As a result, Russia accelerated its transition to professional forces. In 2015, the number of contracted personnel exceeded conscripts for the first time.

Moldova, trainee in the War Academy. Photo credit: Ziarul de Garda

4. Corruption in the Army

If the law states that every male citizen must spend a few years in “service to the Motherland,” there is usually someone ready to abuse the system. Corruption in the military helps unwilling conscripts dodge the military service. It also motivates corrupt officials to preserve conscription as a source of bribes.

Last year, a large-scale corruption scheme centered on draft evasion sparked a huge scandal in St. Petersburg, Russia. In an interview with Novaya Gazeta, Sergei Strilchenko, expert on the Russian President’s Human Rights Council,  said that the average bribe for a falsified medical diagnosis was around 150,000 rubles ($2,600).

5. Inertia

Like other closed state systems, the army is resistant to reform and outside control. This problem is not confined to conscript armies, but it does help keep the practice of conscription in place.

In Eastern Europe, social control institutions are less developed than in the West, and the state does not always take the side of society. The result is that officers and soldiers don’t always follow regulations, practices like violent hazing persist, and soldiers die as a result. These tragic situations are often rolled into state statistics on non-combat losses.

In April 2016, when conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region escalated, Azerbaijan lost 147 soldiers, 38 of which were non-combat losses. Armenia lost 165 soldiers, with 53 consider non-combat casualties, Caucasian Knot reported, citing figures of the Institute of Caspian Military Studies (CDSI).

Azizov Beyali, father of Elxan Azizov, a soldier tragically killed in the Azerbaijani Army. Photo credit: Meydan TV

Meydan TV reported the tragic story of an Azerbaijani conscript who shot his comrade and then committed suicide. His family does not believe the official explanation of the incident, and claims their son was mistreated. However, opening an investigation is impossible, because seven years have passed since the tragedy.

6. Conscription with a Human Face

The Pacifist Movements of the 1960s and 70s added another dimension to military service. These movements generally opposed the violence of war. As a result, alternative civilian service gradually became commonplace.

Germany, for example, maintained compulsory military service until 2011. However, in its last ten years, two-thirds of new recruits chose alternative civilian service in roles ranging from hospital and nursing home attendants to emergency first responders. In other words,the state used conscripts to fill around 80,000 civilian vacancies a year.

In the post-Soviet space, alternative civilian service is struggling to take root. In Belarus, the first 50 alternative servicemen appeared only this past winter. Euroradio interviewed one of the them, Vyacheslav, who works in a hospital, 10 hours a day, 5 days a week. Many agree that this is better than digging trenches or other menial activities associated with live in the Belarusian Army.

Vyachslav Shulyak, member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious sect chose alternative civilian service in a hospital. Photo credit: Euroradio

7. Flexibility

Even an outdated institution like the conscript army needs to adapt to contemporary realities. Even where conscription continues, it is usually not the only means of filling the army’s ranks. Many militaries now mix conscriptions with professional soldiers.

Recruit in the Estonian Army. Photo credit: Daniil Zhilinskii, Novaya Gazeta (Baltics)

Estonia is an interesting example. After gaining its independence in 1991, Estonian society agreed that the only way to ensure the safety of this small country was to build a defense system that involves the majority of the population and not only the narrow ranks of professional soldiers. But the Ministry of Defense chose new recruits using many factors —  ranging from physical fitness to the personal wishes of the individual recruit. Every potential conscript can go to the Ministry and indicate when and in which capacity he would like to serve, reports Baltic Novaya Gazeta.

/This is a collaboration by journalists in the Russian-language network, Mediaseti: Zaza Abashidze, Georgii Zedginidze, Dimitrii Avaliani, Aziz Kerimov, Gunel Imanova, Khadzhi Khadzhiev, Viktor Moshnyag, Anatolii Eshani, Olga Bulat, Fedor Prokopchyuk, Nadia Apenko, Darya Sapranetskaya, Artem Martinovich, Vitalii Rugan, Vitold Yanis, Maria Kyusel, Maria Epifanovna, Maksim Eristavi, Nataliya Marshalkovich, Kim Voronin.