You are a citizen of Tajikistan and you have a son, brother, grandson, or another close person of military age. One day this young man, on the street or at home, can be abducted by unknown people during the so-called “raids”, a traditional military draft. Mufiza Kenzhaeva, a participant of CABAR.asia School of Analytics, discusses various issues in her article: Why young people do not want to serve in the Tajik army? Why are the raids dangerous? What can be done to improve the situation?
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Raids in the age of drones and robots
It’s the 21st century. UN experts challenge the ethics of using autonomous deadly technologies during hostilities and call for a ban on the development and use of such robots. Meanwhile, the Tajik media are discussing another raid in the country carried out to replenish the armed forces of the republic.
A raid is an illegal compulsory form of conscription, often with the use of physical force, illegal invasion of private territory, threats and other illegal actions. Conscripts are young people aged 18 to 27 years. According to official data, there are about 600 thousand young people of the conscription age in Tajikistan (150 thousand of them are ineligible for service and 100 thousand are outside the country).
As a result, out of 600 thousand conscripts in the republic, approximately 350 thousand are fit for military service. Every spring and autumn, the republic plunges into another whirlpool of raids, which from now on are carried out by people in civilian clothes. There is often not even a hint of affiliation with the military enlistment office or other government agencies on the cars, where young people are being crammed. From outside it looks like a kidnapping. Hence, the relatives of a recruit captured during the raid sometimes don’t know which state agency to complain to.
In case of refusal of service, the military registration and enlistment office must file with the court, which, in its turn, considers and takes punitive measures. However, on the contrary, it is the recruits now who have more reasons to file with the court. The raids have been executed on underage boys or only sons. There have been recorded cases of moralizing conversations with parents whose sons are located outside Tajikistan. Stress and chaos pervade the daily life of Tajik guys and their families during the raiding season. The facts of raids are recorded on video lately, which helps to prove the relevance and scale of the problem.
Difficult choice of Tajik conscript
Apart from a certain group of volunteering servers, a significant part of the recruits is drafted from raids. There are about 350 thousand eligible men in the country but military registration and enlistment offices hardly recruit the necessary 15-16 thousand conscripts annually.
Many factors discourage young men and relatives from serving in the army, and the practice of raids only reinforces negative connotations. The very conditions of stay of conscript soldiers in the army are unattractive: lack of food; problems with providing military uniforms; clothes of poor quality & unavailability of different sizes. Conscript soldiers are often sent to defend the not-always safe borders of a country. The military clashes on the border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan take place almost annually, resulting in the casualties of border guards and civilians from both sides. In September 2019, three border guards died on the Tajik side, among them one was 19 years old and the other 21 years old. Also, Tajikistan is adjacent to Afghanistan, where tensions have existed for many consecutive years.
However, hazing is one of the main factors for unwillingness to serve in the army. The Coalition of Civil Society of Tajikistan against Torture and Impunity recorded approximately 59 cases of torture and torment against military personnel for the period 2014-2016. 11 young people died in the process. These figures show only the top of the iceberg, given that many young people hide cases of torture and psychological pressure. There are many cases of conscript suicide during service: a 19-year-old soldier died in Gissar in April 2018, a 21-year-old died in May 2018. Among the deaths of soldiers qualified as suicide, relatives of the victims had observed signs of beatings.
The state does not cover the damage of hazing to victims and their relatives. In 2017, the Office for Civil Liberties NGO reported that earlier the amount of moral compensation was not lower than $ 700, but now it does not exceed even $ 200. Military enlistment offices do not want to be held accountable for military personnel; the latter do not have guarantees or a sense of security. For example, in 2014, colleagues killed a 22-year-old soldier turning him into disabled. Later, his lawyer demanded that the military pay about 98 thousand somonis ($ 10 thousand US dollars) for material damage and 180 thousand somonis ($ 18,500 US dollars) for moral damage. The court reviewed the case several times, but in the end, the victim received only 40.6 thousand somonis (about $ 4 thousand US dollars). However, the border guard court filed a complaint against this decision as well.
The raids have a detrimental effect on the image of the army, frightening residents and only pushing conscripts away from service. A resident of the Rudakinsky district, Nasimjon Kasimov, was captured on November 9, 2019, on his birthday, when he turned 18 years old. Strangers broke the door lock of the house and dragged the guy, despite the cry of his younger brother and the arguments of the neighbors.
On November 12, the staff of a conscription office invaded the house of a 25-year-old resident of Shakhrinavsk district, losing sight of the fact that he had already served in the military. The correspondent of the Asia Plus publication Abdullo Gurbati, who entered the minibus and found out that they were being taken to the army, also came under a raid.
Such cases of detention cause a stream of angry comments in society, parents complain about arbitrariness. The Tajik Ministry of Defense confirms the illegality of the raids but does not comment on the incidents.
The inertia of officials far from conscription
Several interested parties benefit from the current conscription policy. They receive preferences in various forms: free labor, bribes from those who wish to “divert” from military service.
For example, in September 2019, an employee of the military enlistment office of the Devashtichsky district asked the conscript’s parents for 8 thousand somonis ($ 830 US dollars) for an arranged military identity card. However, having received the money, the officer of the military enlistment office did not keep his corrupt promises. Also in the city of Gissar, a military desk officer promised to issue a “white” military ID ( “white” proves ineligible for service – editor’s note ) for 5 thousand somonis ($ 520 US dollars). In Isfara, a member of the military enlistment office proposed exemption from service for 1.8 thousand somonis ($ 185 US dollars). These are isolated cases that have been publicized and the perpetrators have been punished, although one can only imagine the magnitude of the problem.
In addition to the corruption cases, military enlistment offices are comfortable with the conscription policy because there is no need to conduct a wide campaign. During the recruitment season, you can see only a couple of on-duty commercials on national television channels. On the other hand, we can conclude that there are probably no arguments for attracting young people.
The authorities do not have a continuous dialogue with the youth. This affects the image of both the country and the army. Dialogue platforms are required for the growth of patriotism: forums with young people, round tables, internships in government agencies. Representatives of different social strata should constantly communicate with each other, exchange ideas, and express their views.
Promises of military reform periodically come around, but there are no actual changes. If the recruitment season would be fair, that is, it would apply to all young men of a conscription age without exception, then the country’s elite would solve the problem expeditiously. An enormous gap between the elite and young people from average families only exacerbates the problem of misunderstanding and discontent. The speeches of officials about unpatriotic guys look inappropriate when the children of “servants of the people” themselves are in no hurry to join the army. The practice of conducting raids does not affect the children of the country’s elite. Employees of the military enlistment offices do not break into their homes; they do not catch the “golden youngsters” in minibuses.
The 21st Century Army
The official budget expenditures for the conscription army in Tajikistan are not published. However, it can be assumed that the costs are quite impressive. A possible army reform could save taxpayer money and increase the attractiveness of service.
Today the concept of compulsory military duty is becoming obsolete in the world. Instead of general military service and spending the budget on conscripts for two years, it would be better to reduce the enlistment standards and pay soldiers, forming a compact and contract army. As a guideline, we can adopt the practice of Western (and not only) countries and hire contractors for service. In a country with a very high unemployment rate, such an alternative, together with a reduced period of service, has every chance of success. In this case, the decision to join the army will be a deliberate step for young people, while they’ll also receive wages. With the money saved, the republic could purchase modern weapons.
Besides, Tajikistan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, in close alliance with large military powers like Russia and China. There are 201 military bases of the Russian Federation on the territory of the country (about 7,500 military personnel). Foreign media claimed military cooperation between Dushanbe and Beijing; in 2019, joint exercises of two armies were held in GBAO. Tajikistan can count on the support of neighbors interested in the security of the region.
A need for real benefits of conscripts
Many articles were written about the raid issue, in which activists and public figures tried to find a solution to the latter. If there are no raids in neighboring Uzbekistan, and this practice is common in Tajikistan, then we can conclude that the problem is most likely not with conscripts, but with the service itself.
There are several ways to reform. For starters, you can reduce the service period from two years to one. This step can solve or at least reduce the hazing, for instance.
Such measures will help Tajik youth better plan their lives. Now many conscripts, for fear of falling under raids, are formally enrolled in universities whose diplomas they do not need; reduce activity during the recruitment campaign; start their own families early, etc. Instead of hiding from the call, young people could direct their energy to career growth or making money.
Instead of hiding from the conscription, young people could direct their energy to career growth or money-making.
Some of Tajikistan’s civic activists propose a rule: if you don’t serve – pay. But given huge property differentiation of society, this measure can further exacerbate social inequality.
In mentioned Uzbekistan, instead of appealing to patriotism, they decided to introduce benefits for those who served. For example, it became easier for them to get to work in the police and the National Guard. This approach seems more appropriate.
For the sake of justice, we should also note that, under the law, some benefits are provided in Tajikistan as well. For example, a national testing center adds 75 extra points to the university applicants who have served; there is a benefit of 400 somonis (40 US dollars) for three months and assistance in subsequent employment. But in fact, many are not informed about the existence of benefits, which is not surprising given the lack of a broad campaigning company. 
Representatives of the military registration and enlistment office themselves fear violation of recruitment plans under the threat of losing their jobs. As a result, this becomes the main motive for the raids. Therefore, it would be better to soften the requirements for military commissars in case of the shortfall for objective reasons.
Nevertheless, activists, the media and civil society should not give up. They should continue to cover and discuss the raids’ problem, thereby demand the reforms from the government. These reforms will help increase stability in society and strengthen Tajikistan’s security.
This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.
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