Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

End to National Service Cheers Young Romanians

Long-awaited abolition of conscript army designed to bring Bucharest into line with its new NATO partners.
By Cristina Liberis

A song of the late 1980s voiced the chagrin of young Romanian recruits who had to be up by 6 am for gymnastics, then clean out the latrines - and all on a hungry stomach.


“Stau in unitate, fac tiris pe coate, / Fac sectoare si plantoane, pin’ la liberare,” it went. (I’m here alone, marching and patrolling all the time / Till the end of my military service).


But now Romania’s parliament is to put an end to such laments. This week it decided that the October 2006 generation of recruits will be the last to be called up.


From January 1, 2007, Romanian males aged 20 will have to show up at military recruiting centres in order to register – but nothing more. The registers will be maintained solely in case of war, when conscription would be reintroduced.


Apart from that, Romanian citizens, whether men or women, will now only enrol for army service if they wish to, as a career move.


The decision to end the annual draft was widely expected.


Bucharest has agreed to transform its army from a Warsaw Pact mammoth into a lean, mobile force that is compatible with NATO’s needs. In its quest for membership of the alliance, which it joined last year, Romania undertook several reforms, including radical cuts to the officer corps and an end to conscription.


The armed forces have already shrunk from 235,000 in 1994 to less than 100,000 and are expected to number only 75,000 by the end of next year.


Defence spending has risen, meanwhile, to 2.4 per cent of GDP per year (around one billion US dollars) for the last five years, which is above the NATO unofficial minimum level of 2 per cent.


The defence minister, Teodor Athanasiu, says money will be saved over the long term through the reform process, which will go on increased salaries.


“We are trying to get our salary scheme in line with other NATO countries in the not too distant future,” said Athansasiu.


“We are not worried about a shortage of recruits for non-compulsory military service. The number of people who want to join the military exceeds the number of available positions.”


Most Romanians feel the creation of a purely professional army is long overdue, as many youngsters loathed the old annual draft.


Razvan, enlisted in 1984, says he considered defecting abroad in order to evade military service.


He still remembers his hatred for his officers, when he was not granted leave for his sister’s marriage. He also despised the political indoctrination of the communist era, which he found oppressive and paranoid.


Other memories are less tinged with bitterness. Alin, called up in 2001, said, “The army for me was like a rite of passage and the experience of being together with other young people helped shape my character.”


Others fear the consequences of dismantling a numerically powerful army, which made them feel safe.


“Our leaders are so stupid,” reads one message on a newspaper website. “Why drastically reduce the number of soldiers, when Russia remains a permanent threat to Romania?”


Although Romania has tried to improve its military status within NATO by restructuring the forces, the reality is that many shortcomings remain. Living arrangements for professional soldiers are poor, for example.


On the plus side, Romania took part successfully in several international operations, sending troops to join the peacekeeping missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.


Bucharest tripled its presence in peacekeeping missions in the Balkans in order to free up other NATO troops to serve in Afghanistan.


And in a move designed to impress the Bush administration, Romania was the first country to sign an agreement with the United States, pledging not to turn US soldiers over to the new International Criminal Court, ICC, which Washington opposes.


Cristina Liberis is a journalist with the public broadcasting company TVR.