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Kyrgyz Army Law Controversy
The army is mobilising opposition to a controversial new law, which will give army recruits the chance to buy themselves out of the forces.
Conscripts have always bought their way out of military service by bribing corrupt officials, and the government believes that by making such payments official, it can generate income to boost its forces, which are poorly funded and racked by low morale.
But the proposed legislation - which is yet to be signed by President Askar Akaev - has been condemned by army chiefs and poor Kyrgyz families alike.
Military officials are loathe to give up the extra income they make from the bribes, and there are concerns the new law will create a pauper's army, staffed by only the very poorest youngsters who cannot afford to buy themselves out.
The law, which was passed on December 5, stipulates that a Kyrgyz conscript can get out of service by paying 25,000 soms (530 US dollars) - which is what it costs to feed and clothe an enlisted soldier for one year - raises the conscription age from 18 to 20 and sets the army retirement age, currently 45, by five years.
Parliamentary deputy Major General Ismail Isakov, who drafted the law, believes the changes were necessary to tackle corruption. "At the moment, everyone who doesn't want to serve in the army pays to get out of service. But this money does not go to the national budget - it ends up in the pockets of dishonest officers," said the former defence minister.
His successor, Colonel-General Esen Topoev, is fiercely opposed to the change in legislation, and intends to lobby President Akaev in a bid to block its adoption. "The law contradicts many constitutional standards and so cannot be passed," he claimed.
The leader of the National Guard, Lieutenant-General Abdygul Chotbaev, is also angry at the thought of youngsters buying their way out of service. "This is immoral. How can serving the motherland be expressed in a money equivalent?" he asked.
Every year, enlistment offices send out around 60,000 army call-up papers - although realistically, they only need around a tenth of the number, as the Kyrgyz army is one of the smallest in Central Asia.
Sergei Bogdanov, who used to work at an enlistment office, told IWPR of the many ways Kyrgyz youngsters dodge military service.
A "wolf's ticket" - the nickname given to a document which confirms a person has completed army service - can be bought for 600 dollars. And for a small additional fee, its owner can be accorded senior ranks and even credited with decorations.
"I know for a fact that certain officers at enlistment offices let some recruits go for a bribe and at least now it will be honest, on legal grounds," he said.
Many ordinary Kyrgyz, including soldiers, oppose the new law in principle, believing that the country needs a professional army, and fear that only young men from poor backgrounds will serve, as those from well-off families will simply buy their way out.
Private Aziz Kambarov, an enlisted soldier in the elite National Guard, said, "After this bill is passed, society will be even more sharply divided between rich and poor. It's a disgrace that you can buy yourself out of service."
Isakov maintains, however, that the army has long been made up of poor Kyrgyz. "Those who don't want to serve, don't. Let them have the chance to do it legally," he said.
The money that's made from buying one's way out of service, he went on, should go directly towards the needs of the army, and can be used to support soldiers from poor families, "I think that then everything will be fair."
Ulugbek Babakulov is a human rights activist
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