By Gordana Knezevic
(RFE/RL) — Croatia is reportedly planning to bring back a “light” form of the military draft in 2019.
According to Croatian Defense Minister Damir Krsticevic, the scheme under consideration would amount to three or four weeks of mandatory basic training for draftees.
Compulsory military service existed in the former Yugoslavia, and Croatia continued the practice until 2008.
“Our intention is not to reinstate national service in its previous form, but to teach basic military skills to young people,” Krsticevic told Croatian TV channel HRT last week.
Defense officials suggested the short training program being discussed would actually appeal to most Croats. “We do not want to militarize our society. The point is to teach preparedness for natural disasters,” Krsticevic said.
In an interview with the Croatian weekly Globus, Krsticevic, a former general, dismissed speculation that the move was related to any renewed sense that neighboring Serbia represented a danger. “As a responsible nation,” he said, “we must ensure that our armed forces are up to date, and our people secure.”
On the question of whether perceived Russian influence in Republika Srpska in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina — including a possible military presence — would present a security challenge to Croatia, Krsticevic said, “I do not see [Russians in Republika Srpska] as a threat, but as a reality.”
In a region where manmade catastrophes can seem as likely as any natural disaster, the idea of mandatory military service was not necessarily well-received by everyone.
Igor Dragovan, a Croatian opposition politician, said he thought the proposal is a knee-jerk response to worsening relations with Serbia. Dragovan blamed the media for creating the perception that Croatia is on the brink of war. Talking to RFE/RL in Zagreb, Dragovan rejected the argument that reports hinting at Serbian efforts to rearm are justification for reintroducing military conscription.
Croatian-based military analyst Igor Tabak says he feels the danger is being exaggerated. “I understand that a lot of people in Croatia are seeing images on TV of Serbia unveiling new armaments purchased in Moscow and Minsk. They also remember 1991” — a reference to the Croatian war of independence, fought against the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav Army — “and they foresee a conflict that is not going to take place,” Tabak says.
For its part, Serbia, seemingly buoyed by the prospect of arms shipments from Russia and Belarus, has also eyed bringing back compulsory military service. The proposal, which came from the Serbian Defense Ministry, has been shelved for the time being by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic as too expensive.
“I was almost glad that we are a poor country and don’t have the money to pay for bringing back the draft,” journalist Veselin Simonovic wrote in Blic.
Tabak suggests the driving force behind the push to revamp national armies was not a rising foreign threat but rather issues closer to home.
“The arms race between Croatia and Serbia should be understood in the context of domestic politics and, in particular, the forthcoming elections,” Tabak says of the presidential election in Serbia slated for April. “There is also the undeniable fact that both countries need to modernize their armaments. To give just one example, both Croatia and Serbia currently have fighter jets that are older than their pilots, which is an indication of the desperate need for an overhaul.”
Commentators in Serbia have meanwhile pointed to the fact that Croatia is a NATO member and that any war would mean taking on that Western military alliance.
Some have also suggested that increasing regional cooperation in military matters might be more beneficial and possibly cheaper. In his Blic column, Simonovic deferred to military analyst and former military pilot Blagoje Grahovac, who claims that neither Serbia, Croatia, nor Albania has the means to police its own airspace effectively and that coordinating their efforts would make sense for all involved.
Politicians might prefer the kind of chest-pounding and rattling of sabers that Serbia’s Vucic exhibited when he boasted in his yearend press conference that “we finally have an air force that will keep our skies free.”
But, for now at least, it seems that the loftiest nationalist ambitions — and talk of a regional arms race — might be kept in check by Balkan countries’ financial limitations.
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