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Central Asia: Developing Armies Of The Underprivileged?

  • Farangis Najibullah

Kyrgyz soldiers marching in a military parade in Bishkek

Kyrgyz soldiers marching in a military parade in Bishkek

October marks the beginning of military call-up season in much of Central Asia. But Talant, a 24-year-old Kyrgyz man, says he intends to avoid the draft at any cost.

"Under current circumstances in the army, I wouldn't want to serve in the armed forces,’ said Talant.

“We hear a lot about bullying in the army, about poor social conditions in the army."

Talant has left Kyrgyzstan to study abroad and does not plan to return home until he is 28 -- when he will be clear of the country's twice-yearly draft that targets men aged 18-27. All in that age bracket are required to serve for one year, although Talant says that "most of young Kyrgyz men I know have found ways to skip army service."

Talant's comments reflect the sentiments of many draft-age youths throughout Central Asia.

The thought of military service in the region conjures up images of appalling living conditions in military barracks, inadequate food, and widespread bullying of young conscripts. And the Soviet-era conscription systems used to fill the ranks of the militaries are notable for the various avenues employed to evade them.

Many draft age men enroll in universities to take advantage a law that prohibits the recruitment of students. Others leave for Russia or other countries and wait out the summer and autumn call-up seasons. Still others obtain fake military certificates that verify the document holder has met his service obligations.

The bribing of doctors in order to receive confirmation that potential conscripts are not medically fit for military service is reportedly commonplace. And corruption is rampant at recruitment centers, leading to the widespread belief that military service is really only mandatory for the underprivileged, since those who can afford to find ways to buy themselves out of military service.

This year, Kyrgyzstan has taken steps to address some of the problems associated with its twice-yearly draft by introducing new measures aimed at boosting compliance.

The length of conscript service has been shortened -- from two years to one. And conscripts have been offered an official avenue to pay for a service exemption.

A new Kyrgyz law allows those who pay the equivalent of $270 to recruitment centers to obtain military certificates after undergoing just one month of special military training.

Moving Away From Conscription?

The changes follow promises of military reform made by Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev following his reelection this summer.

Outlining the eventual development of "modern and professional armed forces provided with state-of-the-art equipment," Bakiev said in a July 28 address to the nation that "we must give up the system of compulsory military conscription." The president, touting the goal of eventually switching to a "contractual principle of manning a military contingent," noted the necessity of ensuring the "maximum level of security in the country after giving up the universal conscription system."

Detractors, however, have completely the opposite view, and call for a return to a conscription system that makes military service compulsory for everyone regardless of their education or social background.

Among them is Ismail Isakov, a former Kyrgyz defense minister who tells RFE/RL that the new measures "serve the rich."

"Under the Kyrgyz laws if you're studying at the higher education institutions, you won't go to the army; if you pay 12,000 soms (Eds: approximately $270) you will get away with one-month military training,” said Isakov.

“Of course, rich people's children would only choose these methods because they can afford going to universities or paying 12,000 soms. Only those who can't pay have to serve in the army."

Regionally, Isakov is not alone in his assessment. Tajik Colonel Mahdi Sobirov tells RFE/RL that the national armed forces of Central Asia have turned into armies of "peasants and workers' children."

Benefits For Former Soldiers

In terms of struggling with a military image that keeps potential conscripts away, Uzbekistan may be the exception in Central Asia.

The country lowered compulsory service to 12 months years ago, and has also introduced options for paying out of service. Uzbekistan has also introduced special privileges for former soldiers seeking to enter universities or to receive lucrative jobs in law-enforcement bodies or the criminal justice system.

Investments have also been made into the construction of new military barracks and training centers, as well as for soldiers' uniforms and food.

The benefits have served to attract many youths to the military. Ironically, some even reportedly pay bribes to get into the army, in the belief that it will pave their way to better education and career opportunities.

Jamshed, an 18-year-old student in Tashkent, tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that he wants to serve in the army after graduating from his university.

"It's better to serve in the army because I need a military certificate in the future. I will have less of problem finding a good job if get the certificate,” said Jamshed. “That's why I'm planning to join the army."

Military officials in neighboring Tajikistan say they look to eventually follow Uzbekistan's example by improving conditions in the army and introducing privileges for former soldiers.

"We've asked the government to give former soldiers quotas in universities. We've asked for a number of benefits. But at this point there is not enough money for radical improvements," says Major Husniyabonu Khushdilova, a high-ranking official with the Tajik Defense Ministry.

However, Major Khushdilova is confident that "the funds will be available soon enough."

In the meantime, officers from recruitment centers in Tajikistan continue to counter potential conscripts' attempts at evading service by seizing young men from streets, railway stations, and airports -- a practice commonly known as "oblava" -- before sending them to serve in the national army.

(RFE/RL's Central Asian services contributed to this report.)

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