Mongrel military reform makes draft worse than ever

By Miklós Haraszti

Budapest Business Journal      July 23, 2001

During the time that has elapsed since Hungary joined NATO in 1999, it has become obvious that the country’s compulsory national service is untenable and should give way to a professional army. However, a law passed in June, intended as a “military reform,” merely sidestepped the need for real change and actually worsened the state of the army. The reasons behind this failure – as so often in post-communist Hungarian politics – are ideological tactics and opportunism.

True, the new law did reduce military service from nine months to six, which might be seen as a small step in the right direction (although the short period wastes young people’s time even more, as it practically prohibits the army from making the drafted servicemen acquainted with modern technology). However, to make the law more likely to get through Parliament, the reduction was accompanied by measures to haul in more people to the draft. For example, it dropped a number of medical exemptions, while obligating family doctors to keep all documents regarding boys under their care and to produce these documents on demand, to clamp down on false medical excuses. Meanwhile, men who have not received a call-up by the age of 24 will be required to report to a recruitment office voluntarily.

These changes will prove unpopular with the young, as most resent conscription with increasing venom. Last year, in Budapest alone, half of the 43,000 draftees did not even bother to show up. Most of the other half produced medical documents exempting them from service. Others had educational waivers or claimed conscientious objector status, meaning they can only be drafted for unarmed service. In the end, recruitment officers managed to send only 2,000 young men from Budapest to barracks.

Professional soldiers have no more reason to be happy with the law. In a Europe where even strongly patriotic nations such as France and Russia have recently dropped the draft, Hungarian generals are left looking as old-fashioned as in the late ‘80s, when they had to realize it was time to switch their second language from Russian to American English.

In fact, the only significant change the law has brought is to worsen a negative situation, effectively maintaining two armies within a single country.

One is the conscripted army, which in the old Warsaw Pact days served both for domestic oppression in peacetime and for a possible mass raid abroad in times of war. (Hungary’s hypothetical task was to be prepared to repel an attack from Italy – preferably by preemptively attacking that country – while possibly doing something about Yugoslavia on the way.)

The other is the professional army, the only one still of any use.

None of Hungary’s conscripts have been deployed in any post-communist “engagements.” These have included sending a medical unit to aid Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf in 1990, and helping NATO halt civil wars in the former Yugoslavia by sending non-combat logistics troops and allowing NATO to use former Soviet air bases in Hungary.

One army is highly educated and socially prestigious, and can be rented out to NATO for special missions. The other is lousy, under-financed and socially despised, and only useful for humiliating young people with tyrannical floor-mopping exercises.

The delay in necessary reform is down to domestic politics.

Viktor Orbán’s governing Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Party – which, ironically, started out ten years ago as a radically anti-authoritarian, anti-militarist grouping – has turned into a conservative “discipliner” of youth, preaching that obligatory military service plays a key role in strengthening national identity and unity. In an oft-quoted soundbite, the prime minister told a gathering of top-ranking officers of the army early this year that he looked differently on members of his administration depending on whether or not they had done their national service.

Fidesz’s greatest rival, the opposition Hungarian Socialist Party (MSzP), also supported the law, even though it included a question concerning the draft on its recently proposed four-point referendum initiative. The reason for the contradiction is that the MSzP’s referendum was intended to win support from reform-minded young people, while the party’s stance in Parliament was meant to court older, more conservative voters.

The two big parties helped each other out, delivering one another a pretext for supporting an inadequate mish-mash of a law. While Fidesz agreed to cut the period of service by three months, the Socialists accepted tightened draft conditions.

Compare this with the inter-party cooperation for progress in France, where President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, usually opposing politicians, came together in June to announce in a joint statement that the draft was no longer needed.

Former SzDSz MP Miklós Haraszti is a media professor at the University of California’s Budapest Study Center.