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Serb Army Recruits Trade Guns for Plays

Young men are opting for alternatives to military service, but not everyone is happy with this breach of Serbian tradition.
By Ivana Petrovic

On a frosty evening in Belgrade's National Theatre, Danijel Nikolic bounds on to the stage, under the glare of the stage lights.


With his dyed hair, body piercings and garish sunglasses, he does not cut an unusual figure in Serbia's acting community.


But Nikolic is not an ordinary actor. At 23, he is a serving soldier, currently completing his national service as a civilian at the National Theatre.


So are another 50 or so young men who helped to produce the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's work, The Lieutenant of Inishmore.


The premiere, which several army officers attended, is a sign that civilian national service, after initial teething problems, has taken off one year after it was introduced.


According to recent data from the defence ministry in February, 8,500 recruits opted to serve their country in civilian form this year.


Another 7,500 are on the waiting list to do the same, mainly because there are not enough vacancies for them at the various licensed institutions.


None seem put off by the fact that civilian army service lasts for 13 months – four months longer than regular army service.


In fact, the trend is growing. The number expressing interest in serving the army in civilian form was 3,000 higher this year than last year.


But amid complaints that the system was being abused, the military authorities have recently tightened the criteria for those wanting to serve as civilians.


Moves are afoot to tighten the restrictions further, by striking most cultural institutions, such as the National Theatre and libraries, off the list of places where recruits may serve.


Dragan Paskas, chief of staff of the Army of Serbia and Montenegro, said that since the new system was introduced, some units had become deplorably understaffed.


Paskas said the army had become short of about 10,000 regular recruits, which he said was unfairly burdening the existing soldiers.


The disgruntlement of many officers with the idea of recruits serving the fatherland by donning makeup and taking to the stage is hardly surprising.


Serbs for generations saw their country as a nation in arms. Only 20 years ago, it was hard to imagine youngsters saying they were unwilling to hold a rifle.


In 1995, only 0.01 per cent of those called up for national service listed themselves as conscientious objectors and in 2002 the figure was 0.06 per cent.


But by 2004, this number had soared to almost 25 per cent, just after the civilian alternative to traditional army service was introduced.


Danijel Nikolic, son of an army officer, is typical of a new generation that has rejected traditional military values. "I don't like firearms," he told IWPR.


"My dad left me his rusty pistol and a rifle, but I don't even want to clean them."


Even among students – usually the most liberal element in most societies – such pacifist-sounding views can still meet disapproval.


In a survey by the Serbian Students Union in April 2003, six months before civilian national service was introduced, more than half the respondents condemned men who had opted out of regular army service.


Some 37 per cent saw them as weaklings, 17 per cent as cowards, 12 per cent as homosexuals, while 10 per cent labelled them traitors.


Such stereotypes reflect Serbian traditions that celebrate the day when a young man leaves home to serve the army as an essential rite of passage to manhood.


Send-off parties for recruits - especially in country districts - often last for days, with food, drink and music in abundance for the many guests who as a rule present money to the recruit.


Yet, although the tradition is alive and well, young men seem increasingly inclined to opt for alternatives, while even their parents' generation is slowly relinquishing the ideal of the Serb as a warrior.


Partly, this reflects a sharp decline in the army's financial position and the resulting deterioration in conditions for the recruits.


Milos Dosen, performing national service in Kraljevo, central Serbia, has nothing against military training in principle but would not recommend it.


"The conditions are inhumane," he told IWPR. "The food is bad and hygiene is poor. It makes no sense having only one bath a week in the 21st century. About 75 per cent of the commanding officers should not even be there."


Such reservations are increasingly shared by society. A survey, entitled Citizens' views of the Army, by the Centre for Civilian-Military Relations in September 2004 showed 63.7 per cent of respondents thought recruits and soldiers had to put up with indecent conditions.


Stjepan Gredelj, a sociologist, links the growing interest in civilian national service to the collapse of older, belligerent, militaristic ideologies in the wake of recent failed wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.


Recent unsolved fatal incidents involving recruits have also dented public confidence in the army as an institution.


At present, it is possible to do civilian national service in more than 575 humanitarian, health care and social institutions.


At the National Theatre, the large number of recruits is conspicuous. With three recruits for every regular employee, the ratio is more than the institution needs, or can make good use of.


On the other hand, civilian recruits have enabled the theatre managers to slash the numbers of part-time workers.


Mileta Pantelic, theatre operations director, says recruits saved them 8.7 million dinars over the past year, more than 10 per cent of the theatre's annual budget.


Colonel Petar Radojcic, head of the army's military service department, told a recent press conference that many organisations had benefited financially from using recruits. The associated costs were negligible, he said. This needed underlining, he added, given the army's current financial difficulties.


Addressing the tightening of regulations, Radojcic said that in future, recruits' professional qualifications would not be taken into account when allocating them to serve in civilian institutions.


Under the new rules, civilian national service is described as an activity intended to benefit society as a whole and is not to be seen as a form of professional internship, or training.


In line with this concept, Vladimir Pavlovic, who intends to work as a lawyer, is serving as a civilian at an obstetrics and gynaecology clinic.


Alongside a future economist, a lawyer and a philologist, Pavlovic counts and issues clean outfits and bed linen for babies.


Pavlovic says his work at the clinic hardly makes productive use of his skills, but at least the eight-hour shifts do not prevent him from continuing his studies at Belgrade University.


The unproductive use of recruits is only one of the problems facing the civilian military service in Serbia, says Petar Milicevic, Belgrade coordinator for the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection.


Milicevic agrees that plays like the The Lieutenant of Inishmore are good examples of such engagement but he insists that the core problem surrounding compulsory military service has not been entirely addressed.


He wants civilian national service placed under the responsibility of a civilian government ministry and not under the defence ministry.


"These young men have said 'No' to the army," Milicevic said. "They're civilians."


Mileta Pantelic is clearly proud of the 263 young men serving the army in his theatre. Although he normally comes to work in his suit, he appeared for this interview in an olive-green army jacket and boots.


"I've dressed like this on purpose," he joked, "because people think it's really like the army in here."


Pantelic praised the recruits' energy and discipline in producing a challenging theatre piece. "They really feel as if they're soldiers. For example, I'm not exactly their commander, but they call me chief."


To an unexpected degree, the artistic recruits display many features that typify the military spirit, he added, including working in teams, holding sports tournaments and even asking Pantelic, a former paratrooper, to organise parachute jumps.


"Some are in poor physical shape," said Pantelic, who has started doing exercises with them in Belgrade's Ada Ciganlija and Kalemegdan parks.


Over the past year, military circles have continued to echo to grumbles that civilian recruits in some way jeopardise national security. Military analyst Zoran Dragisic disagrees, however.


According to Dragisic, traditional models of compulsory national service are outmoded and increasingly irrelevant to a modern army tasked with tackling counter-terrorism and organised crime.


"I hope that in a few years the Serbia and Montenegro Army will become purely professional and civil service would then become voluntary, as it is in Spain," he said.


Meanwhile, the production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore has taken the sting out of the animosity of at least some members of the military old guard.


When the National Theatre first proposed to the army's department for morale that the soldier-artists put on a play, their initial reaction was bewilderment.


But in the end, several officers attended the premiere and, says Pantelic, at least one general in the audience was pleasantly surprised by the attitude, energy, will power and compactness of the army company on stage.


According to Pancetic, the general praised the high level of morale shown by actor-recruits - which is all too rare in some of the army's more conventional units.


Ivana Petrovic is an IWPR contributor.


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