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Kazak Army Reforms 'Unrealistic'

Military experts are sceptical about government plans to overhaul the armed forces
By IWPR Central Asia

The Kazak authorities are considering an overhaul of the armed forces, in light of the Islamic insurgency in neighbouring countries.

A military trained primarily to fight large-scale wars must adapt to dealing with smaller, intensive fighting, officials believe. Areas of concern are the army's mobility and the autonomy of independent units.

Plans are afoot for a massive restructuring of forces into four military districts. Special mobile assault units will be formed to tackle small insurgencies by Islamic militants, such as those in neighbouring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

"Many analysts are predicting that the (militants) may reach the southern regions of Kazakstan, " warned the Kazak newspaper Novoye Pokoleniye." Judging by the fact the Southern Military District was set up last year, and is being given special attention by the defence ministry, our military do not rule out the possibility of military operations in our republic."

There are signs the authorities are preparing to pre-empt the militants. Kazak defence minister Sat Tokpakbayev told his Kyrgyz counterpart earlier this month that his country was ready to help Kyrgyzstan in the event of incursions by Islamic rebels this spring.

But the plans to reform the Kazak armed forces are threatened by a serious personnel crisis.

Officers are leaving in droves for Russia and other CIS countries. Conscripts regularly bribe their way out of army service.

There is talk of recruiting soldiers through paid contracts, but resources are insufficient to make this a realistic option. During an economic crisis in 1999, 90 per cent of the 400-strong brigade resigned en masse when payments and benefits were withheld.

But the military's most serious problems stem from low morale and its poor public image. "The overall prestige of the service is generally decreasing," said one officer. "And so is our level of preparedness."

This is in stark contrast to the situation five years ago when Kazak servicemen were relatively privileged. Salaries were amongst the highest in the CIS and on a par with other professions.

Steps are being now being taken to address the army's problems. A new presidential decree is due to raise salaries by 30-40 per cent. And the defence budget has doubled since last year reaching one per cent of gross national product, GNP.

But analysts point out that even in 1996-98, when the defence budget made up 1.1 per cent of GNP, salaries failed to meet the needs of soldiers.

"It's hopeless," said one lieutenant who wished to remain anonymous. "Poverty is widespread in the army. Most soldiers take to alcohol, and there's a lot of domestic violence and divorce. About ten per cent of officers are trying to get out of uniform at all cost, because they can't stand the pressure and the hardship. Me, I can't get married, I can't afford to start a family."

Another officer stationed in Almaty is equally despondent. "They fed us nothing but promises. We were told we'd get salary increases of 30-40 per cent, but we now hear that we'll receive a lot less. And this is what they call caring about the military?"

Given the resources available, military experts are sceptical about the proposed reform of the armed forces."The tasks set for the army are good ones," said one. "But at the moment, I doubt it's capable of fulfilling them."

Moreover, many are concerned that the current military budget is insufficient to deal with the threat posed by Islamic insurgents.

"Although military spending is double that of 2000, in dollar terms it is less than army expenditure in 1995, when there was no suggestion of hostilities in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan," said Novoye Pokoleniye.

"All our neighbours have taken account of all the blunders of the last two years of war and are preparing to meet the new militant threat fully armed - may Kazakstan not be caught napping."

The transformation of the Kazak military promises to be a long and painful process. Despite facing hardship which would test the endurance of the hardiest of men, Kazakstan's troops, it seems, will just have to soldier on.

Adil Kojikhov and Eduard Poletaev are IWPR contributors