Central Europe's sulky conscripts

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The Economist:  12-Aug-00


        A DRUNKEN ensign recently shot and killed a conscript at a Polish naval bar- racks in Swinoujscie, a Baltic port. The mis- creant said he had only wanted to scare the conscript under his command; he did not realise the safety catch was off. Intention or accident, this death has hardened yet more young Polish men?and, perhaps more formidably, their mothers?against their country's compulsory military service.
In Hungary, a meningitis scare had a similar effect. The disease swept through a barracks in January, and investigators blamed dreadful living conditions. Many Hungarians were appalled: 70% now say they want conscription to end.
As for the Czechs, they are the least mil- itary-minded among the three former Warsaw Pact countries that have switched to NATO. Though the dashing cavalryman is still a romantic figure in the Polish imagi- nation, most Czechs admire "the good sol- dier Schweik", the fictional private of Jaros- lav Hasek's novel, who comically
undermined authority in the Austro-Hun- garian army.
The underlying problem for Central Europe's armies is a mismatch between the few professionals or professional units and the weak conscripted mass. The profes- sionals can be impressive. A Czech recon- naissance squadron, for example, serving in NATO on the boundary between Kosovo and Serbia proper has won top marks from British commanders. A Polish air-assault battalion in southern Kosovo has been praised for the way it has helped American troops there. Yet, on the whole, conscripts from all the new NATO countries tend to be ill-trained, feeble and sulky.
Since 1990, all three have shortened the period of conscription: from 18 months (in- deed, 24 for conscripts in the Polish navy) to 12 in Poland and the Czech Republic, and nine in Hungary. chart will show this; and each country's current armed forces size, distinguishing conscripts from volunteers But morale is still low. The conscripts' training is too basic to make them battleworthy. A few learn how to parachute or handle modern weaponry, but most become, in effect, cheap domes- tics to clean latrines and peel potatoes.
Many young men see military service as positively damaging to their careers. "They are branded as 'losers' by their peers," says Kerry Longhurst, of Britain's University of Birmingham, whose research shows, unsurprisingly, that the best-edu- cated and best-connected are also best at dodging the draft. Money is the simplest way out: bogus medical discharges cost $500 on the Czech black market. A similar racket operates in Hungary. Last year, at least a quarter of the 40,000 or so Hungar- ian men eligible for conscription were let off on medical grounds; 95% of those called up last year in the rich Buda part of Buda- pest managed to avoid serving.
Some excuses are considered legiti- mate. Going to university is one. Another is conscientious objection, which entails some kind of civilian service instead. War- saw Pact governments had little truck with pacifists, but their successors are more un- derstanding. The number choosing the ci- vilian option in Hungary surged from 300 in 1990 to over 5,000 in 1999.
How could NATO's cash-strapped ex- communist countries afford the heavy costs of a switch to professional armies? They have already curbed defence spend- ing, disappointing suppliers who had hoped that NATO's expansion would bring juicy orders for aircraft and tanks. The Poles, who still cherish their military tradi- tion, are considering letting conscripts serve in regional regiments close to home. A different idea would be to divide the army into a conscripted home guard and a professional force. This would be cheaper?and might appeal to those who think conscription good for the national soul.

/Jonathan Ledgard, Central and East European Correspondent, The Economist/
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