By George Psyllides
WHEN the government on Thursday announced it was cutting mandatory military service from 24 to 14 months, it sparked jubilation from those affected but also drew heavy criticism from opposition parties who – like the public – were taken by surprise.
Even before hearing the minister’s explanations, the parties, though agreeing in principle, charged that the decision was taken in haste and was nothing but a ploy ahead of the May parliamentary elections.
Likened by one radio talk show listener to an organised commando raid, the government announcement dropped like a bombshell and if reports are to be believed, it even took aback the army’s top brass.
Defence Minister Christophoros Fokaides on Saturday played down criticism and reports that the decision did not have the blessing of army chiefs.
“We’ve been discussing the matter for 10 years. It has become a joke,” the minister said during a lunchtime state radio show.
Fokaides reiterated that he had been saying all along that a plan would be submitted by the end of 2015.
“They heard me, but they didn’t believe me,” he said.
The decision provides that conscripts who joined in the summer of 2015 will serve 18 months, while all service after that will be 14 months.
The minister argued that announcing the decision now but introducing the reduction at a later stage would have encourage draft dodging.
“I assure you that draft dodging would have exploded from the next recruitment,” he said.
He rejected suggestions that the decision was an election ploy on behalf of the government. Reducing miitary service was a pre-election pledge, he said. It could not be enforced earlier because the island was still reeling from the economic collapse in 2013. And if it had been annouced next year it would still be considered an election ploy ahead of the presidentials, he added.
The plan is to hire 3,000 professional soldiers to plug the gap. This will cost taxpayers some €33mln per year.
“The country needs to move forward. An effort must be made by everybody,” Fokaides said.
The minister also rejected reports that army chiefs had expected the reduction to be implemented in 2020 in line with a study carried out by the National Guard command.
“It would never have been possible to commission a study for the reduction of service in 2020 since it is well known that it was included in the president’s governance programme,” he said. The current administration’s term ends in 2018.
However, beyond the politics, the key question is whether the decision can be implemented in such little time.
House President Yiannakis Omirou, and other parties, have questioned how it could be rolled out this summer when none of the preconditions had been met. The preconditions being an upgrade of weapons systems and procurement of new armaments, reorganisation of units, and recruitment of the professionals.
Daily Phileleftheros on Saturday suggested that army officials had expected a gradual reduction in service over the next four years combined with procurement of certain systems – including surveillance cameras at camps to replace guards – and recruitment.
But Fokaides said procurement of armaments and the restructuring of the National Guard had nothing to do with a reduction in service.
It was the 3,000 professional soldiers that will make reduction possible and procedures were already underway with the aim of starting recruitment in a couple of months time, he said.
Some 9,000 conscripts currently serve in the National Guard. When the cut in service is fully implemented this figure will be halved.
Males up to the age of 32 who have done their army service will be eligible to join up – this would do away with the need to have basic training, which usually lasts a month.
They will be hired on a one-year trial basis before being offered three-year contracts with a salary of €1,100 per month.
The contracts can be renewed up to three times. According to Fokaides, if the number was not covered by Cypriots, then the invitation would be extended to Greek nationals, a number of whom are already serving in the National Guard including on five year contracts.
A study commissioned by DISY in 2006 showed that having a semi professional army would boost the National Guard’s combat effectiveness and benefit the economy.
According to the study, which covered a 20-year period, mandatory service “constitutes a form of forced labour”. There was also the wear and tear of equipment in the hands of conscripts as opposed to its handling by professionals.
Drawing from outside sources, the study said the US defence department considered a professional army a lot cheaper. Conscription, it was argued, came at higher cost due to larger numbers, which mean more supervision and training hence more instructors taken from other vital duties,
“Training is very expensive in an army of conscripts since they need more time when given complex tasks,” the study said.
An army of volunteers also drew people who had an incentive and performed better than those forced to do service. “People with skills are easily trained and are more disciplined.”
The study showed that it would have a positive impact on growth, resulting from a rise in the number of workers and limiting the loss of revenue of reservists.
It found that a CY £8mln (€13.6mln) gain could be made as early as the first year of implementation, which could rise to £124mln (€211mln) by 2025.
“The total growth benefit for the Cypriot economy during the 20 years in question, in today’s values, is estimated to be over £1.1bln (€1.8bln),” said the study, which was issued before Cyprus adopted the euro.
Since the study was carried out, of course, the economy collapsed and Cyprus is still battling high unemployment figures.
By George Psyllides