Uzbekistan: Where Conscripts Are Eager to Serve
When Nodir Tolipov turned 18 last March, old enough to begin his compulsory military service, he was eager to serve in Uzbekistan’s armed forces. But Tolipov ended up being disappointed when recruitment officers in his Ferghana Valley town told him there was no room in the ranks.
As is fitting for one of Central Asia’s most repressive regimes, Uzbekistan has perhaps the best-funded military in the region. Local observers say conditions for recruits are comparatively cushy, and they serve for a shorter period than conscripts in neighboring countries. This means the Uzbek army has no problem meeting conscription quotes, unlike its counterparts in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where chronic shortfalls require, in some cases, the use of press gangs to fill out regiments.
The fact that Uzbek conscripts serve for only one year also reduces instances of ritualized bullying -- a practice known as dedovshchina that dates back to the Soviet era. Hazing thrives in other Central Asian armies in large part because they have two-year service requirements: with an annual turnover in troops, raw recruits suffer at the hands of second-year soldiers.
Conditions in the Uzbek military are especially appealing to unemployed youths contemplating labor migration to Russia, where they may or may not find a job, or be targeted by violent nationalist groups. A spot in a military unit also comes with lots of perks.
“After completing active duty, conscripts are entitled to a variety of perks such as free admission to universities and government-funded stipends. They also have higher chances of landing jobs in government agencies, especially in the police and the SNB [the National Security Service]. On top of that, they get 1 million sums [$350] at the completion of their service,” said a Tashkent-based journalist who covers military issues, speaking on condition of anonymity. “If you want to join the army, you have to face the same competition as you would face when you’re trying to enter a good university.”
Despite the stiff competition for openings, military service remains a requirement for Uzbek youths, meaning any service-aged man without paperwork proving he has fulfilled his duty will have trouble leaving the country. For those who do not wish to serve, it is said to be easy to buy the necessary paperwork.
The relative popularity of military service is the result of President Islam Karimov’s increasing defense spending in recent years, said a source at the Defense Ministry in Tashkent. Military officers enjoy salaries roughly four-times the national average and also receive generous housing subsidies, said the source. Uzbekistan’s spending on its military is the highest in the region, as a percentage of GDP, according to the CIA.
With teenage boys actually eager to sign up, the size of the Uzbek military has swelled in recent years, according to the Defense Ministry source. While he would not provide specifics, one expert estimated the four branches of Uzbekistan’s military consist of 70,000-80,000 active servicemen, including officers – double the number in the early 1990s. According to the CIA Factbook, 306,000 young men reach military age every year in Uzbekistan. “The military cannot accommodate everyone who wishes to enlist,” says the Factbook.
The growing military and associated rise in defense spending is straining government resources, according to an April report by the Expert Working Group, one of the only independent civil rights organizations operating in Uzbekistan. Tashkent spent close to 3.5 percent of its GDP [or roughly $1.5 billion] on national defense in 2010. By comparison, according to CIA statistics, Kazakhstan’s defense spending was estimated at 1.1 percent of GDP, Tajikistan’s was 1.5 percent, and Kyrgyzstan’s was 0.5 percent. Only Turkmenistan came close, with a defense outlay that was 3.4 percent of GDP. The Uzbek Defense Ministry source said that “a large share of state funding goes to maintain a social safety net for officers and soldiers, including salaries, subsidized housing, food, and other social services.”
He added that only a limited amount of money goes to military training and upgrading of military hardware. “It is no secret that our country’s military hardware is outdated. We still use Soviet tanks, planes, and weaponry,” the source told EurasiaNet.org.
In 2006, officials in Tashkent announced reforms to streamline and professionalize the military. In November 2011, authorities replaced the biannual military call up with a single annual draft. According to the Defense Ministry source, authorities are also planning to make some cuts in salaries and housing allowances for officers.
State-controlled media claim the reforms have been largely successful. But military experts say reform efforts are hampered by a number of factors, including behind-the-scenes factional infighting. “If Karimov moves to cut [military] spending, this will alienate the generals, weaken the army and shift the balance of power among government agencies,” said the journalist. “Karimov has managed to stay in power by keeping a balance among the security services such as the army, the SNB and the police.”
The ministry source noted that the planned withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan and associated security risks are affecting Tashkent’s calculations. Already, the Karimov administration may be feeling squeezed, and appears to be looking for ways to contain costs. Under a provision introduced in the early 2000s, conscripts can opt to serve for only one month, if they pay a fee – currently 1.8 million sums ($640). And after the month’s service, conscripts receive no benefits such as university admission or employment preferences.
These days, authorities are reportedly pushing draftees to accept this one-month-and-out option. “This is a puzzling situation. Many draftees actually want to serve. But they do not want to serve for one month because they won’t get any perks and they will be forced to pay a lot of money,” said the Tashkent journalist.