By George Psyllides
A cut in mandatory military service accompanied by recruitment of professional soldiers would have an immediate cost, Finance Minister Harris Georgiades said on Monday, but it would be outweighed by the long term benefits.
“There is an immediate fiscal cost because professional soldiers will be paid more than the nominal salary paid to conscripts,” Georgiades said.
On the other hand, the two-year military service has wider financial effects, he said, giving as an example the working hours lost when reservists after leaving the army still have to report for duty several times a year until the age of 50.
The government said last week it was cutting military service to 14 months from two years by 2017. This will be made possible by recruiting 3,000 professional soldiers at an annual cost of €33mln. Their monthly salary will be €1,100.
“We will pay more in the short term but the taxpayer’s investment will be of better quality,” he said. “We should also keep our eyes open and see what is happening in all modern states.”
Georgiades said there should not be any concerns about the financial aspect of the endeavour since the cost had been calculated and was within the state’s capability.
He acknowledged there was also a political dimension – the Cyprus problem – but even in the case of a settlement, a small armed force could be necessary since the island was an EU member with a regional role and obligations to fulfil.
Since the surprise announcement last Thursday, opposition parties have been criticising the government about the timing, suggesting it was an election ploy.
They also claimed that the government should have informed them before and have also expressed reservations about the efficacy of the effort.
Parliament does not have a say in the matter, but it will have to approve the budget for the professional soldiers.
One of the most vociferous critics, EDEK chairman Marinos Sizopoulos, accused the government of not even informing the military leadership.
“Big problems are created by the government’s stance and behaviour,” he said. “The minister should have announced the decision in the presence of the National Guard leadership and not on Twitter.”
He also suggested that the plan would fail, citing the example of a previous scheme where five-year contracts were to offered to wouldbe professional soldiers so that they could handle the more sophisticated weaponry.
At the time, the army failed to attract local volunteers and had to hire Greek nationals. The defence minister has already said that if the positions were not filled by Cypriots, the government would extend the invitation to Greek nationals.
“Who can guarantee that 3,000 positions will be fully covered?” Sizopoulos said, suggesting that university graduates would not agree to serve for €1,100.
“This is an election firework by the government. It is trying to take advantage of the desire of parents and possibly future conscripts for a reduction in military service,” he said.
Ruling DISY leader Averof Neophytou said the positions would be filled by unemployed youths who presently receive around €600 a month in unemployment benefits or guaranteed minimum income.
“As an economist, I think this move will have financial benefits in the mid term, apart from others relating to society and the economy that I can talk about for days,” Neophytou said.