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Kyrgyzstan: Army Desertions Rise

Defence ministry's failure to pay salaries on time is prompting Kyrgyz soldiers to desert.
By Ulugbek Babakulov

A growing number of soldiers are abandoning Kyrgyzstan's newly professional army because of unpaid salaries and deteriorating conditions.


The government has restructured the military over the past two years, moving from a largely conscripted force to one where the majority of soldiers are professionals - promises of large salaries and bonuses having persuaded many conscripts to sign two-year army service contracts.


But in many cases the money has failed to materialise, trapping the soldiers in a downward spiral of poverty and desperation. While many fear recriminations from superior officers if they talk to the press, the scale of their concerns is forcing some to speak out.


One contract soldier, who gave his name as Meder, told IWPR, "When you see the real situation in the military unit, you realise there's no way back and you have to put up with it for two years. Our country does not look after us at all. We have absolutely no prospects."


There are no precise figures on the number of desertions from the 12,000-strong Kyrgyz army, but it is a growing problem. Some officers believe that over half the contract soldiers are ready to abscond. "Only fear of a court-martial stops them," said one.


Some soldiers claim they have not been paid since January 2000, and human rights activists note that increasing numbers of contract soldiers - usually young men aged 20 to 24 - are coming to them to complain about their difficulties.


Rights activist Azimjan Askarov believes the men are left with little choice but to desert, as they have to put the welfare of their families first. "Contract soldiers are obliged to do their military service, but what morals can there be on an empty stomach? They have to think of how they can put food on the table," he said.


On July 10 this year, the military court of the Oshk garrison sentenced contract soldier Azimbek Junusaliev to two years' imprisonment for desertion. He had served only 23 days in the local brigade.


Junusaliev claimed he was deceived by the Jalal-Abad city military commissariat, who failed to make good on promises that he would be well paid - a figure of the 4,000 soms (90 US dollars) had been mentioned - and trained by an elite unit.


The average monthly wage in the Kyrgyzstan armed forces is 800 soms. With bonuses for service in the mountains, a contract soldier with the rank of sergeant can get up to 1150-1200 soms.


Apart from their salary, contract soldiers are meant to receive a monthly ration payment, in lieu of food, of around ten dollars. Every six months, there is also an "extraordinary remuneration" - or EDV, as the soldiers call it - of four monthly salaries, which can amount to the equivalent of 70 dollars.


However, soldiers complain they have not received a ration payment since November 2001, and that the EDV has not been awarded for two years.


"Defence minister Esen Topoev promised that all the debts we are owed will be settled by March 2003," Talat, a contract soldier serving in a mountain motorcycle rifle battalion, told IWPR. "But how will we survive until then?"


Talat has run up debts equivalent to more than two months' salary and is finding it increasingly difficult to get by. "I have to feed my family somehow, so I take groceries from merchants on credit," he said.


"I'll ask for another loan. There's nothing else I can do. I have to feed my wife and year-old baby daughter somehow," said contract soldier Bakyt.


Food is provided in the army mess hall when the battalions are on manoeuvres, but soldiers say the quality is poor. "Everything is low in calories and is prepared carelessly - I once found mouse droppings in my bowl of kasha. Now I buy bread on credit - I won't eat there anymore," added Bakyt.


"The state has practically forgotten us. We are forced to ask our relatives back home for money to survive, although at first we thought our jobs would support them."


The Kyrgyz military leadership say it has honoured the pledges it made to improve the quality of army food after adverse media comment during operations against the militant group the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the southern Batken region of the country several years ago.


Senior officers make light of the complaints by contract soldiers and say reforms to the army have improved the situation.


"Of course, there could be further improvements. Nevertheless, at the present moment the armed forces of the country are fully effective and capable of performing any tasks they are confronted with," said Lieutenant Colonel Kanatbek Bolokbaev, commander of the Mailuu-Suu battalion.


Ulugbek Babakulov is a rights activist in Jalal-Abad


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