Uzbek authorities are anxious to portray the military as a well-oiled machine, ready to repel potential incursions by Islamic fighters. The government's efforts to bolster the army's image obscure widespread concern about military service. Many families are prepared to go to great lengths to keep their children out of the army.
In recent days, the Uzbek government has vigorously denied reports that Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan guerrillas have penetrated the country. The Defense Ministry issued a statement June 11, saying units taking part in military exercises in southern Surkhandarya Oblast were not engaged in fighting IMU militants. The next day, Pravda Vostoka, a pro-government newspaper, published a lengthy story refuting the invasion rumors.
As the threat of the Islamic insurgency looms, the lure of service in the Uzbek armed forces appears to be loosing its appeal. "Our fathers fought for the [Soviet] Union," said Ahmed, an 18-year-old youth. "They had something to be proud of. We are fighting for a small, independent, bankrupt, Central Asian republic who no-one has never heard of. What is the pride in that, especially when these days there is so much danger involved?"
Announcing the spring call-up, Burkhoniddin Ergashev, head of Mirzo Ulughbek District Defense Department, reported no cases of draft-dodging in recent years. But such assertions do not reflect the widespread dread with which the spring ritual is viewed by many young men and their families, especially in major cities.
"Who knows whether our boys will get enough to eat, where they will be sent and if they have to fight, whether they will have decent equipment," said one mother of a draft-eligible young man. "And if they are not well, or something goes wrong, we know we will never be told or be able to find out," she added. "We send our children into a vacuum."
Military service is compulsory for all able-bodied Uzbek youths over 18. Any male not classified as a full-time student, or married with at least two children can be drafted until the age of 32. After two years of service, draftees remain in the reserves until 50.
In recent years, non-Uzbek speakers have complained about systemic abuses in the army. Such hazing is reportedly carried out in retaliation for abuses suffered by ethic Uzbeks and other Central Asian recruits in the Red Army during the Soviet era. The Soviet army was notorious for the ritualistic hazing of draftees, a practice known as dedovshchina. Parents of non-Uzbek speakers often resort to paying hundreds of dollars in bribes to keep their children out of the army.
Marcel, an ethnic Tatar, heard about the beatings he would receive if he were drafted, and the prospect of the two-year stint filled him with dread. "I would have had huge problems because I don't speak Uzbek.
Jennifer Balfour is a freelance writer, based in Central Asia.