Uzbekistan was the first Central Asian country following the collapse of the Soviet Union to create its own national army. Now it is looking to reform its military by cutting service time for conscripts and taking steps toward building a professional army. Neighboring Tajikistan, meanwhile, is also looking for ways to improve its own national army.
Prague, 20 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Future conscripts in the Uzbek Army have at least one thing to look forward to. Starting this spring, the length of regular service will be cut back from 18 months to just a year. A spokesman for the Uzbek Defense Ministry, Komil Jabborov, described the changes to RFE/RL: "The [new] law will be implemented starting with the next term of recruitment this spring. All potential soldiers who sign up for conscript service as of this spring will serve a one-year term. Those people who have higher education will serve only nine months."
Uzbek officials believe shorter terms of service will help stem corruption among recruitment officials. Over the past decade, young Uzbeks have routinely paid bribes to avoid serving in the national army. Many young men resist military service because of difficult conditions. The problem of "dedovshchina," the often brutal hazing of new recruits by older soldiers, is widespread.
One young Uzbek soldier, Ravshan Normatov, said the shorter service time may help reduce the risk of hazing as well. "It's believed that with a new one-year term, 'dedovshchina' -- a legacy of the Soviet times -- will be eliminated," Normatov said.
The conditions are the same if not worse in neighboring Tajikistan. Many conscript-age young men seek migrant work in Russia to avoid military service. Others bribe officials at their local military office, or "voenkomat," to obtain falsified certificates of service. Tajiks says the price of such certificates can go as high as $100.
It is a situation that has damaged the army's ability to recruit. According to Tajik Defense Minister Sherali Khairulloev, 120,000 Tajik conscripts were enlisted per year during the Soviet era. Now Tajikistan's national army has difficulty finding just 20,000. The shortage has become so dire that recruitment officers have been known to abduct young men on the street and send them into army service without informing their families.
But Khairulloev said Tajikistan is not likely to push through major military reforms like Uzbekistan anytime soon. "We have a two-year fixed-term conscript service. We are not going to change it in the foreseeable future. Those countries that are reforming their armies, unlike Tajikistan, have not seen war for many years. Apart from that, there is a war going on in a neighboring country [Afghanistan]. We are not considering short-term military service," Khairulloev said.
Local military experts claim that Tajikistan, which experienced five years of civil war in the mid-1990s, has the most experienced armed forces in Central Asia. But many former soldiers like Ahmad Bahromov remember suffering through severe food and clothing shortages during their service in the underfunded army. "They would give us bread, porridge, and pumpkins. They rarely gave meat -- mostly on holidays. Sometimes, when we didn't get enough food we would go to nearby villages to find something to eat. Our uniforms were mostly secondhand. There was a shortage of uniforms too. Soldiers would be given the wrong-size clothes. For instance, my size was 42, but my uniform was Size 44. But eventually everything has changed, got better. I received a new uniform and a pair of boots," Bahromov said.
The improvements came with the arrival of U.S.-led coalition troops at the start of the antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan. Coalition forces provided Tajikistan and its Central Asian neighbors with modern military equipment. The United States alone pledged $1.8 million worth of modern equipment to the Tajik Border Service.
Defense Minister Khairulloev said that coalition members like the United States and France are also helping provide professional training for army officers. Since last year, a number of Tajik Army officers have been receiving language instruction in English and French, which will enable them to get training in foreign military schools.
Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are both considering the creation of a professional army in the longer term. They say such mobile, skilled forces would be capable of combating terrorism and fighting other possible threats to internal and regional stability.
Uzbekistan is already planning to gradually decrease the number of conscripted servicemen. Eventually, the bulk of the army's personnel will serve on a contract basis.
Khairulloev said that the Tajik Army will also switch part of its personnel to professional service in five years' time. Officials from both countries say they are confident their reforms will receive significant support from their new strategic partners in the West.