Linas Jegelevicius in Vilnius -
While most of Europe now relies on professional armies, Lithuania, spooked by Russia, is scrambling to rebuild the conscript army it gave up five years ago. Many young men now face the looming draft with decidedly mixed feelings.
“Frankly, as much as I love my country and feel respect to the military, I am not ready to become a conscript,” Alfredas Pumpulis, a 21-year-old student of Klaipeda College of Social Sciences, tells bne IntelliNews.
His view contrasts with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė, the staunchest supporter of conscription, who has called it a “necessity”.
“In the short term, Lithuania has no other way to strengthen and build its army, and in the existing geopolitical situation such considerations and alternatives raise the issue of constitutional responsibility. As state leaders and lawmakers, we have the constitutional duty to ensure the security and defence of the state,” Grybauskaitė said.
Meanwhile, Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius, though insisting that his Social Democrats (SD) are in favour of conscription, warned that the parliamentary debate will be divisive. “From what I hear from some MPs, the discussion is probably going to be very heated,” the premier said.
So far, only the rightwing Homeland Union - Lithuanian Christian Democrats (HU-LCD) has signalled that its parliamentary faction will be voting en bloc for the reintroduction of conscription.
“We really believe it is a necessary measure amid the geopolitical tensions. We are not speaking about a new bill - just of the re-enactment of a law that is quite well prepared,” Jurgis Razma, a HU-LCD deputy, tells bne IntelliNews.
But other legislators have voiced a great deal of concern about conscription.
“It seems to me that we’re ignoring many other options to ramp up our defence, such as beefing up our reserves of volunteers, for example. I believe that a national referendum should be held on the issue,” says Kęstas Komskis, an influential MP from the junior coalition Order and Justice Party.
Markéta Wittichová, an analyst at the Prague-based Centre for European Security, says the revival of compulsory military conscription in Lithuania is not the best choice, even symbolically.
“Conscription may increase the size of the Lithuanian army, which could buy time in any direct confrontation with Russia before Nato steps in. However there are other, more effective measures symbolically and in terms of strengthening national security. Boosting defence spending to purchase new weapons, or the Baltic States’ agreement to increase funding to Nato´s air mission in the Baltics, are preferable to re-introducing conscription in this regard,” she points out.
Some senior officers in the Lithuanian military are also wary of conscription, although they acknowledge the necessity of bolstering Lithuania’s defence.
“Quantity does not mean quality. Most of Nato relies on professional soldiers, not conscripts. We should heed the practice,” Liudas Gumbinas, chief of Lithuania’s Riflemen Union, tells bne IntelliNews.
He says he fears that the current conscription system might also be socially unfair.
Razma also shares this concern: “Well, definitely, we may see some medical records’ tampering or fixing. Much relies on people’s consciousness,” he says.
Conscription supporters hope, nevertheless, that a legislative package of incentives and social guarantees will boost young mens’ determination to defend the homeland.
The state will commit to reimburse 50% of the conscript’s education costs, grant exemptions when a recruit enters university, and offer preferential access when applying to work in the civil service. For the employer, the state pledges to subsidise up to six months’ wages of the conscript after he returns to work.
The Law on Conscription affects men between 19 and 26 years but women can also choose to be drafted. The term is nine months and, if enacted, the law will be effective for five years.
Lithuania intends to call around 3,000 men this autumn, which amounts to a mere 1.7% of all potential recruits. The country’s defence strategists expect to prepare up to 20,000 conscripts over the next five years. It is estimated Lithuania will need to spend roughly €6mn on conscription this year.
Lithuanian generals have been complaining ever since the abolition of the draft in 2010 that they cannot fill up even half the barracks. It is estimated that Lithuanian army reserves amount to 20,000 men now.
Pumpulis hopes he will not be called for the draft first. “I can just hope that my current physical condition, which is not the best, will get me rejected. Or, at least, it will keep me off the top of the list,” he confesses. He adds: “I think that young, physically fit and healthy men who are willing to serve should be called first.”
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