Why Belarusians Avoid Conscription

On 5 March a soldier from a border unit near the city of Hrodna committed suicide while on duty. Although over the past couple of years the authorities have taken serious measures to reduce the number of deaths and amount of abuse in the army, such incidents continue to occur.

The Army has lost much of the social prestige and role it played in Belarus. Young people see it as an institution that hampers their personal development. Dodging the draft is common, despite criminal penalties for violators.

Since the late 2000s the Belarusian authorities have changed conscription rules in order to isolate political activists, who are occasionally illegally forced to serve. At present, the Ministry of Defence offers no real incentives to get people to join the armed forces and continues to resist serious reforms.

Following the Ukraine crisis, Lithuania re-introduced universal conscription and it is gaining more importance in the region. The Belarusian authorities need to reboot the armed forces to bring them in line with modern standards.

Army No Longer Popular

Belarus, like many other former Soviet countries, has retained universal military conscription. All males between eighteen and twenty seven years old have to serve between one to one and a half years in the army, provided that they have no valid reason for not serving.

During the Soviet era, military service was seen as a matter of honour for young men. The pervasive Soviet ideology encouraged defending the country, and many used the army as a means by which to improve their social standing and overall welfare. Popular culture regarded men who escaped conscription as being fundamentally deficient, and few attempted to evade the draft as a result.

However, in modern Belarus most young men view military service with apprehension. The military lost its ideological attractiveness and social elevator function, and has transformed into an institution which restricts personal freedom and opportunities for self-development.

Siarhei, 23, told Belarus Digest that he will do anything to avoid military service. "It is a waste of time, one doesn't learning anything there, and most of the time soldiers do nothing but clean toilets and count the days until they are discharged. You will not become a fighter there". Siarhej's opinion is typical of most young Belarusians. Many of their peers who return from the army call it a "waste of time", as military training is often replaced by meaningless routines and working on repairs. The government fails to offer conscripts incentives for service, although it tries to entice them to serve through promos like the one below.

It is hardly any wonder why many people try to avoid serving at nearly any cost. Becoming a student remains the most popular means of avoiding conscription, and many a “professional student” has been made in an effort to age out. Fathering a child is another option, though less popular due to the additional burden.

Trickery is often employed as well, such as feigning health problems, or simply not taking a medical examination. Usually, the military offices report that dodgers make only up only a small percent of eligible men. In 2013 Minister of Defence Jury Žadobin, however, complained to the Belarusian parliament that he cannot conscript enough healthy men.

Many people also go to Russia to make money and visit only between conscription cycles, which take place twice a year. For instance, in the Klimavičy district on the Russian border around 30% of eligible men remained in Russia during a 2013 conscription round according to the local authorities.

However, evading conscription can be a costly proposition in Belarus as an offender can be charged with a fine of up to $12,000 or up to two years in prison. While few actually end up in prison, there are occasional public cases that serve as a reminder of what could happen.

Hazing in the Armed Forces

The term ‘dedovshchina’ from the Russian word 'grandfathering', an analogue of hazing in English, is a system of informal hierarchies and practises common in the Soviet and post-Soviet armies that involves physical abuse and humiliation of junior conscripts by their senior counterparts.

Military officials claim that dedovshchina in the Belarusian army has been virtually eliminated. Indeed, compared to 1990s, when there were nearly 100 deaths annually, the situation is considerably better, though they certainly have not disappeared altogether.

The government has tried to minimise dedovshchina in recent years by taking a number of measures: psychological health exams before and during service, video surveillance, daily injury exams and improved officer oversight.

The numbers speak for themselves: the level of criminal acts in the army decreased from 11 per 1,000 people in 1994 to 1.7 per 1,000 in 2014. Hazing now takes on new forms with soldiers finding new means of abusing one another that are more difficult to detect, including psychological pressure and bullying. In just the last month two suicides took place - one in the Barysaŭ district and one in Hrodna.

Activist Intimidation and Politicised Conscription

At the end of 2000s Belarusian opposition activists were subject to a new type of state pressure. The authorities forcibly delivered them to have medical exams and quickly transferred them to the army, regardless of what previous medical exams may have shown.

If needed, they were kicked out of universities, thus eliminating any excuse for not serving. Some went to the army right after spending a few days in jail for their political activism.

Franak Viačorka, a political and civil activist has become perhaps one of the most famous political conscript. His fight against forced conscription and subsequent conflicts in the army on the ground of his political views and his usage of the Belarusian language received vast media coverage in 2009. After repeated attempts to prove his health problems, the medical commission recognised him as unfit he was released 15-month service.

In 2011 Franak Viačorka wrote a script for a feature film “Long Live Belarus!” based on his experiences, a film that showed the gloomy reality of the Belarusian army and forced conscription.

Minsk has yet to show it has any intention of transforming into a professional volunteer army so far, a position it is unlikely to retreat from following the Ukraine crisis. Still, every year the Ministry of Defence experiences more and more problems in gathering up the necessary number of conscripts. A more compact and professional army trained in special operations and modern technology would be a welcome change to the drilling mills.

Vadzim Smok is the Ostrogorski Centre coordinator in Belarus and researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius.

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