Cyprus Mail

Long road ahead for army reform

Army training centre (CM archives)

By Constantinos Psillides

SOLDIERS should not hold out unrealistic hopes that government plans to reduce military service to as little as 14 months will be implemented in time to benefit the present military intake, the defence ministry has warned.

The ministry of defence announced two weeks ago that plans to implement President Nicos Anastasiades’ election pledge to slash military service from 24 months to 14 were finally ready, though the ministry warned they were also considering a military service of up to 18 months.

The news of a reduction was greeted with widespread relief by serving national guardsmen and those due to be called up in the near future, but the possibly outgoing Minister of Defence Fotis Fotiou – a member of the DIKO party, which is poised to leave the coalition – told the Sunday Mail this week that the reduction will take “careful planning” and should not be done hastily.

“Our plan is to reduce military service through careful planning, as a part of the complete overhaul of our military,” he told the newspaper. “The plan is ready and the only thing that remains is to settle on a number of months, so as to not compromise the National Guard.”

He said there was also the option of gradually reducing military service. “It will depend on a multitude of factors and conditions,” Fotiou said.

Although not mentioned specifically by the minister, one of these “conditions” is likely to be the recent progress in negotiations on the Cyprus problem. Peace talks have resumed and for the first time the two sides will be working based on a joint declaration. A solution to the Cyprus problem would abolish obligatory military service. Although the two sides are still far from reaching a solution, the possibility cannot be ignored, making the defence ministry hesitant over tackling a problem that might not exist in a few years’ time.

Resentment over military service has grown rapidly in recent years leading to a sharp rise in the number of teenage boys seeking ways to avoid serving. Although the ministry refuses to release official figures, reports in 2010 suggested that around 20 per cent of conscripts were getting out of military service, mainly on psychological grounds.

Defence Minister - for now - Fotis Fotiou
Defence Minister – for now – Fotis Fotiou

Fotiou told the Sunday Mail that the long military service had obviously led to an increase in draft-dodging in general and that he hoped the planned reduction would provide a solution. “A comprehensive strategy is needed to battle this phenomenon,” he said.

But while the ministry may be ready with its plans, there are still many political, legal and logistical hurdles ahead. A source inside the defence ministry told the Sunday Mail this week that even if everything went without a hitch, the plan “probably wouldn’t” affect young men who were currently serving.

“For the plan to be implemented in the summer of 2014, everything has to go as planned and everyone should agree to it without changing anything. That hasn’t been our experience thus far when it comes to changing things in the army,” the source said.

Such pessimism has already been borne out. With its plans now finalised, the ministry has to present them to the House defence committee. This was supposed to have happened on February 12, but the date was pushed back to the end of February because the committee discussed instead how the army would be affected by the privatisation of semi governmental organisations (telecommunications authority, electricity authority and ports authority).

The next hurdle is to convince the members of the committee, especially the chairman, EDEK MP Giorgos Varnava. The socialist party has always had strong ties with the military. The party leader and House president Yiannakis Omirou served as defence minister during the Glafcos Clerides’ second term (1998-2003) but resigned in 1999 following the S-300 scandal, when a missile weapon system bought by Cyprus from Russia ended up in nearby Crete. Omirou was also chairman of the defence committee for his last two terms, vacating the position to become president of the House.

Varnava, who took the reins after his party leader left, is considered a “hard-liner” on defence spending. Taking into consideration recent developments in the Cyprus problem, with EDEK strongly opposing the joint declaration, any chance to paint the government as “weak on defence” – including a cut in military service – would likely be too good an opportunity for parliamentarians to miss.

As a taste of the battle ahead, the defence minister had to appear before the House defence committee last October to give assurances that “the National Guard’s combat effectiveness wouldn’t be compromised due to cutbacks”.

Another concern now with the departure of DIKO from the government looming strong and the resulting resignation of Fotiou if the party’s central committee rubberstamps Friday night’s vote in favour of quitting, the whole process might have to start over again.

And even if this does not happen, and the defence committee agrees to the changes in military service, the changes have to be put before a vote at the House plenum where it can be delayed yet again.

Away from the political arena, the wait and uncertainty are taking their toll on families with army age sons.

A mother sees her son off on conscription day
A mother sees her son off on conscription day

One mother, Tania (not her real name) is pessimistic over the defence ministry’s plan to reduce military service. Her 19-year-old son started the army last summer, and she has another aged 15.

“I don’t think it will be implemented in time to affect my son. Maybe my youngest will benefit. It remains to be seen,” she said, adding that maybe solving the Cyprus problem would put an end to military service.

She deeply resents the length of service and views the 24 months her oldest son is likely to serve as a waste of valuable, potentially productive years of her son’s life.

“When he goes off to the university he will have to compete with 17 and 18-year-olds, fresh out of school. He hasn’t hit the books in two years. It will take him time to adapt,” she said.

And if the economic crisis is a major reason behind the ministry of defence’s reform of the army, she says the army makes significant inroads into the family budget.

“We spend more money to feed our son now that he has joined the army than when he was at home. The army provides soldiers with food, but most of the times it’s inedible. Food in the army is presentable only when an official visits the camp but on any other day, they just don’t care,” says Tania.

Sarah, another concerned mother, doesn’t hold back any punches when it comes to the military service. Like Tania, Sarah has a son who was called up last summer. Her younger son is due to start in 2015.

“This is an utter waste of time when they could be studying or working,” Sarah (not her real name) remarks. “The military is nothing more than state-sanctioned prison for males. “

Asked whether she is hopeful that either of her sons will benefit from the proposed changes, Sarah confesses she is not optimistic. “The army is a gravy train for certain segments of society. They won’t give up easily,” she said.

Sarah’s scathing comments have weight.  The army buys a number of services from the private sector which are directly linked to the military service, food supply, for example. Reducing military service would greatly affect the profits of these often well-connected service providers.

Yet, the army has no choice but to cut costs. The defence ministry’s budget for 2014 is €319 million, down about 8 per cent from 2013 when it was €347 mil. One of the goals of the ministry’s yet unveiled modernisation plan is to further reduce the budget, in accordance with the austerity measures imposed by the troika of lenders.

Defence spending on military equipment is also under more scrutiny than ever before. Plans to buy two Israeli-made gun boats were hastily scrapped last December, after it became known that the boats would cost over €100 million. Public uproar forced the state to rethink its plan and shelve the buy.

The military also has a costly problem over the promotion of officers. Officers are supposed to be promoted a rank after serving four years at their current rank, which of course comes along with a pay raise. The practice inevitably led to a bulky, pricey cluster in the higher echelons of the military. The defence ministry is now desperately trying to find a way to accommodate the bursting ranks of its officers.

While the current situation is considered widely unacceptable – including by the government – it remains to be seen when the defence ministry will finally go through with its promise to improve conditions.

This is of little comfort to Tania, Sarah or hundreds of other families.

“My son has been serving for nearly a year. Can I have him back now?” asks Sarah.

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