An ailing military draft system

Two in three young men called up for military service in 2004 were not conscripted, and about 40 percent of those who obtain deferments never serve, according to the Defense Ministry. Over many years, officials in the conscription service have been involved in an extensive network of corruption that trades in illegal deferments. The law has never caught up with them. Draft dodgers and forgers have had nothing to fear, not even the derision of those few who cannot avoid the required service. Deputy Defense Minister Ioannis Lambropoulos talked to Kathimerini about what can be done to end this situation, which is putting the country’s borders at risk. He suggested introducing compulsory military service at age 19 and considering reducing the draft to eight months under certain circumstances. What is the situation with the draft in Greece now? You have begun a long, systematic effort to find those who have illegally dodged it. What has been achieved and what guarantees are there that these people will eventually serve? What has been done about the networks that made draft dodging possible? It is no longer a secret, nor is it any good hiding the truth about a problem that is extremely serious and will require much debate and a broad consensus to resolve. So it is with a sense of responsibility that I can say that our military conscription system has almost broken down. Here are some specific reasons. – Only one third of those called up in 2004 are actually serving. The rest obtained deferments for various reasons or were exempted for health reasons. – Statistically, only about 63 percent of those who obtain deferments serve. The others find ways to avoid it (going AWOL or forging exemptions). – A survey we carried out showed there is a network providing illegal exemptions, whereby the conscripts do not even have to come before a committee. We have found 83 of these cases for the years 1997-2004, run by a former brigadier in the health corps, who is now retired. – There are 17,482 draft dodgers living abroad, but there is a growing number in Greece (14,950 last year compared to just 5,521 in 2000). – Exemptions for health reasons for those aged 19-45 number about 82,000. We are now reviewing the legality of these exemptions for 1997-2004. – There are about 52,000 certificates from municipalities which were used to apply for reduced terms of service or exemptions for the years 1997-2004. In other words, there have never been any checks before this, not to mention penalties. The previous ministry leadership bears a huge responsibility for the situation. If we consider the country’s grave demographic problem, we only need to refer to the difference in the years 1999 and 2001, when there was a 75.89 percent reduction in the conscription pool. At the ministry we have examined everything, we have rooted out illegality and cleaned up the entire system. We have let everyone know that the law will be imposed and that everyone will have to serve his country, which is the duty of every Greek. All draft dodgers are being called up because that is our goal, not as a punishment. The brains behind the scam, the military doctor Emmanouil Niotis, has been sentenced to a long prison term for his part in the exemption of the actor Christoforos Papakaliatis. The investigation is continuing and will continue until completed. We have heard a lot about reducing military service to an eight-month term. How would this be possible? Has any research been done to show this would not adversely affect the forces? Reducing the length of military service is our goal and it is desired by many, but it will be done very carefully and under the appropriate conditions, otherwise we will be making a great mistake as a nation. We are all obliged to consider first of all the preparedness of our units and the integrity of our borders. Conscripts are and must remain the foundation of our country’s defense system. The replacement of conscripts with professional soldiers cannot be considered a successful system as it is, nor can it be when soldiers are recruited at the already advanced age of 28. In order to have a well-trained and able army and to be able to reduce the miliary term for conscripts to eight months, we need to take courageous decisions, to make changes. It is in this direction that we are moving, cautiously and in cooperation with the military leadership and through discussions which we have begun with youth groups and which we will be completed with the political parties. Everything will be done with the necessary care. We are not interested in populism or in making impressions. You are considering a proposal to make military service compulsory at 19. What response have you had, and is this proposal likely to become reality? One of the changes that must be made to resolve the problem of manning our units is compulsory service at 19. That is the way to fill our units in the long term, since it will immediately do away with draft dodging. Training is easier at that age, and afterwards the trained conscript is in the reserves. That would benefit our young men since after their eight months they would be able to begin their studies free of obligation, to further their studies abroad and enter the work force without interruption. We are working on this with the Education Ministry. We are also talking to youth groups and will discuss it with the political parties. Compulsory service at 19 has been functioning successfully in Cyprus, where military service lasts for two years, but in other countries as well. We are in no hurry to decide. First of all, we have to overcome whatever problems may arise and listen to everyone’s opinions. One immediate effect of problems in military service is the understaffing of units in critical areas. How are you dealing with this problem? The problems I referred to earlier, such as reducing military service without the proper preparation, as was done in years gone by, have caused problems with re-staffing our units, combined with the gradual reduction in the ranks of new conscripts. In addition, there were many units which I could describe as being useless, since they had very few men and did very little. We are now in a phase of reorganization. We will be closing several military camps and will have fewer units, but we will be better manned and prepared.