Conscription a Popular Career Move in Uzbekistan

Young men used to avoid army service like the plague, but now they are clamouring for a job that offers a way out of unemployment.

Conscription a Popular Career Move in Uzbekistan

Young men used to avoid army service like the plague, but now they are clamouring for a job that offers a way out of unemployment.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

It used to be that young men would do almost anything to get out of being conscripted into the army in Uzbekistan. As in the other former Soviet republics, military service was viewed as a brutalising experience, to be avoided at all costs.

Now the situation has turned full circle: the autumn enlistment drive that began earlier in October produced more far more recruits than the Uzbek armed forces can possibly use.

Such is the oversupply in manpower that the defence ministry has ruled that only the cream of this year’s recruits will be signed up for the normally mandatory year of service.

It’s not that army life has improved much, but more and more young men are trying to join up because of the job opportunities that will open up afterwards.

In a country with high levels of unemployment, young people are keen to find work in the public sector, particularly in the law-enforcement agencies where there are both job vacancies and good pay. But the interior ministry police, the National Security Service, the prosecution service, and the tax and customs offices recruit only people who have done military service.

Deputy Defence Minister Mannobjon Ahmedov recently gave a press conference where he said an army background was now seen as good news, because ex-servicemen receive benefits such as lower entry requirements for university.

The government recently ordered the labour ministry to find jobs for anyone completing military service.

Young people interviewed by IWPR said they were keen to join the army to avoid unemployment.

In earlier times, it was common practice for young men of army age to use a variety of ruses, such as faked medical certificates showing they suffered from some debilitating illness.

But at a clinic in the Tashkent region where potential conscripts were being checked over, IWPR found some men desperate to join up in spite of health problems.

Ashirbek, from Bostanlyk district, was trying to get through the inspection for the second year in a row.

“They say there’s something wrong with my heart and I have low blood pressure, although I feel fine,” he said. “I don’t know whether I’ll pass the medical inspection this year. I want to work in the police, but they don’t take people who haven’t served in the army.”

Doctors say increasing numbers of young men are unfit for service. The defence ministry says only 35 per cent of the pool of potential conscripts are healthy enough to join.

Sharofat Bobojonov, head doctor at the army medical clinic in Tashkent region, said that the commonest ailments among adolescent males were stomach ulcers and thyroid goitre. “The main reasons for these diseases are incorrect or poor nutrition,” he added.

According to the head of the defence ministry’s medical board for conscription, Rinat Zilolitdinov, “the pace of service is very fast, and there are cases when soldiers with stomach disorders have begun haemorrhaging and were dismissed from service because of their illness”.

Competition to join the military is becoming even keener as the army is downsized year after year, as part of reforms designed to turn a once large Soviet institution into what President Islam Karimov has called a “compact, mobile army”.

Another factor is that military service has been reduced from two years to one, and the more intensive training programme required is more physically taxing for recruits.

Demand for a spell in the army is so high that the military is laying on special one-month courses as a substitute. The training comes at a high price - 163,000 sums, around 160 US dollars in a country where the average monthly wage is just 30 dollars. But anyone who does the course will get a certificate of military service.

A defence ministry official who asked not to be named told IWPR that the fee-paying course was an innovative step to create opportunities for young men willing but unfit to serve.

Yadgar Turlibekov, a human rights activist in the southern Kashkadarya region, is bemused at the complete reversal in traditional attitudes to military service, and blames the economic environment which has driven young men to seek a career at any price.

“Parents come to me complaining that their children have not been taken into the army, or that they can serve only if they pay 160 dollars. You shouldn’t be paying the state to serve; the state should pay its soldiers,” he said.

At the Tashkent army clinic, young men who failed the fitness test said they would be back next year. If they fail again, they can try to find the money for the one-month course, which they can take any time until they are 27.

Malik Boboev is an IWPR correspondent in Tashkent.

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