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.
Social Progress in Belarus: Self-Perception versus Reality
The Belarusian government and Western analysts tend to agree about one thing: Belarus is a social state. Belarus may not be a wealthy country, Alexander Lukashenka likes to say, but it is a state that serves ordinary people.
Yet the 2015 edition of the Social Progress Index, released today, places Belarus 66th out of 133 states on social progress. According to the Index, Belarus meets basic human needs but fails to create the conditions for its citizens to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.
The country lags behind Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia, as well as dozens of other states on social progress, largely due to weak personal rights and the poor health of its citizens. Belarus Digest discussed what the rankings mean for Belarus and other post-Soviet states with Michael Green, founder of the Social Progress Imperative, a non-profit that produces the Index.
Belarus No Longer Leads in the Post-Soviet Region
In most international rankings Belarus has invariably performed worse than EU member states on socio-economic indicators, but usually outranked other post-Soviet states. The British Legatum Prosperity Index and the UN’s Human Development Index clearly show this trend.
Results of the 2015 Social Progress Index, however, place Belarus between Botswana (65th) and Tunisia (67th) and behind Ukraine and Moldova. The Index is based on 52 indicators for 133 countries and draws on original research as well as data from the World Bank, the World Health Organisation, and other respectable international organisations.
Taken together the indicators reflect social progress as “the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establish the building blocks that allow citizens and communities to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, and create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential.”
The absence of GDP from its formula distinguishes this ranking from similar rankings. On the other hand, it includes personal rights, and tolerance. Both explain why Belarus no longer leads in the post-Soviet space.
“The rights of individuals to live their lives the way they want to seemed to us intrinsic to what it means to be a good society,” explained Michael Green, executive director of the Social Progress Imperative, in an interview to Belarus Digest. Green said development experts often “shun” rights and freedoms as “too political to create a global consensus on.”
Belarus Underperforms on Health and Personal Rights
Even though Belarusians have traditionally looked up to the EU and higher-income states, even comparisons with states in a similar income bracket are far from flattering.
Compared to 15 states with similar GDP per capita (ranging from Lebanon and Mexico to Botswana and Montenegro) on social progress, Belarus ranks 11th out of 15.
Belarus’s chief strength relative to these states remains access to advanced education – a legacy of the Soviet Union rather than Minsk’s independent achievement. The country’s relative weaknesses, on the other hand, are health and wellness, as well as personal rights.
On health and wellness Belarus ranks very low – 130th out of 133 countries, even though Minsk takes pride in the accessibility and low costs of healthcare.
According to the ranking, Belarusians are more likely to commit suicide than citizens of 127 other nations and suffer from obesity in larger numbers than citizens of 92 out of 132 other nations included in the Index.
Michael Green emphasises that all post-Soviet states “really struggle on health and wellness” issues despite “varied geographies” due to the combination of environmental factors, lifestyle, and pollution.
On personal rights, Belarus ranks 125th out of 133 countries. The score reflects political rights, the freedom of speech, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of movement, and private property rights. Belarus performs poorly on all of these dimensions even when compared to the fifteen states listed above.
Will Belarus Meet the Needs of its Citizens Better in the Future?
Ukraine outperforms Belarus in the 2015 Index because much of the statistics used to calculate it were collected before the outbreak of the war. Thus, Belarus’s ranking may improve relative to its post-Soviet neighbour in the next edition of the Social Progress index.
Commenting on Belarus’s relative strengths based on the Index, Michael Green cautions: “It doesn’t necessarily mean that Belarus does well, it just means that everyone else sucks. There shouldn’t be any comfort taken.”
Green also notes that some post-Soviet states may seem to “overperform” relative to their GDP “not because they are successful in social progress, but because they are unsuccessful in GDP.”
As is typical of composite indices, some components of the Social Progress Index seem rather arbitrary. For example, the Access to Information and Communications combines cellphone subscriptions, in which Belarus leads; the press freedom Index, in which Belarus trails behind 118 other states included in the Index; and the share of Internet users. Additionally, the large number of indicators used to compute the Social Progress scores (52) makes their magnitude challenging to interpret.
At the same time, the Index does uncover some of the most glaring shortcomings of the Belarusian “social state” – poor public health and weak personal rights. The Belarusian government rarely acknowledges either of these factors and still claims that the Belarusian state exists “for the common people.” In reality, the state meets only the very basic human needs, a low bar to strive for.
With the crisis in Ukraine on their minds, Belarusians do not seem to mind. When asked what the most important problems facing Belarus are, only 22% of respondents in the March 2015 IISEPS survey expressed concern about the violation of human rights. Four times as many (84%) mentioned rising prices.
Basic human needs are what worries Belarusians most today. Even by its own limited definition of the social state – without personal rights and freedom of choice – the government in Minsk is failing to deliver.