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Kazakstan: Army Recruitment Racket

Young men unfit for military service are bribing their way into the army to escape poverty.
By Daur Dosybiev

Young Kazaks suffering serious health problems are so desperate for work that they are bribing medical officials to pass them as fit for army service.

Poverty and unemployment is hitting the former Soviet republic so hard that many youths feel that their only chance of a decent life, regular meals and free medical treatment is to sign up for a fixed term in the military.

Those who are malnourished, underweight or suffering from serious illnesses should stand no chance of being recruited, but many are offering corrupt medics cash in exchange for a clean bill of health.

At a hospital in the southern town of Shymkent, a civilian doctor, who used to be contracted by the military to carry out health checks, told IWPR on conditions of anonymity that many recruits had been passed as fit despite serious health problems, by paying money to rural conscription centre medics.

The scale of the problem is only now being acknowledged by the military after three new recruits in the Shymkent division, who were certified as healthy only last autumn, were found to be suffering from tuberculosis on January 20.

Syrym Urazymbetov, a senior army medic, confirmed that the recruits, from the Almaty and Karagandy regions, had been diagnosed with the potentially fatal disease, raising fears that many of those who came into contact with them have been infected too.

The head doctor at the Shymkent tuberculosis clinic, Anuar Maimakov, said in one case the disease was in its early stages and might have been missed by doctors, but the other two sufferers should have been diagnosed straight away.

"We encounter this problem every six months, whenever there is a new recruitment drive," Ruslan Jaksylykov, commander of the Shymkent garrison, told IWPR.

He explained that the medical certificates handed out to would-be soldiers at local conscription centres are so untrustworthy that the army now sends each individual for a second, more extensive, medical at a local hospital. "In spring alone, we had to reject 12 new recruits because of their health," he said.

The head of the recruitment department of the south Kazakstan enlistment office, Colonel Oleg Sidorov, confirmed that new soldiers often suffer from poor health, saying many are underweight and some, especially those from rural areas, have skin diseases.

"If a soldier is acknowledged to be unfit for service because of his health, then the responsibility for this is borne by the doctor who did not detect the illness," said Sidorov, adding that a medic can be fined the equivalent of 75-80 US dollars - a month's salary - if found to be negligent.

Last year, five soldiers from the south Kazakstan region were dismissed when they were found to be mentally ill - a condition which was clearly apparent when they began their service. The recruiting doctors had apparently not spotted this - or at least they did not report it.

While the military admits that the problem lies with the local medics who first certify the young recruits as fit for service, they appear reluctant to accuse them of corruption, for the moment at least.

Colonel Meldebek Adilbekov, an official in the military prosecutor's office in south Kazakstan, said, "We will be looking into every allegation of unfit soldiers being conscripted. At this point, we are not sure whether some doctors are making errors or acting illegally."

Many men from rural areas see army life as their only chance to escape unemployment and poverty. Sapar, a soldier in the Shymkent garrison, who was recruited from a village in the Jezkazgan region, is typical. "There's no work where I live, and it doesn't look like there will be any soon," he said.

One local army officer, who did not want to be named, told IWPR that many of the would-be soldiers choose service as way to ease the pressure facing their impoverished families.

Bulat, a doctor who worked for a medical commission at a Shymkent enlistment office for several years, told IWPR that underweight recruits were now so commonplace that recruitment officials have asked for the minimum weight limit to be lowered to raise the number of soldiers accepted for service.

They argue it is perfectly normal for some recruits to be underweight, as Kazaks are naturally slender people. But Bulat insists their condition is largely due to malnourishment.

Such health problems, mostly caused by poverty, are affecting the army's ability to recruit. During Soviet times, around 10,000 soldiers enlisted from the densely populated south Kazakstan region annually. Today, the area offices struggle to find even a fifth of that number who are fit for service.

Daur Dosybiev is an independent journalist in Kazakstan

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