Analyses

Latvia to reintroduce conscription

On 6 September, the Latvian government adopted proposals from the Defence Ministry regarding the establishment of the State Defence Service (Valsts aizsardzības dienests, VAD), one of whose tasks will be to organise compulsory annual military service, to be phased in by 2027. The new proposals also envisage the voluntary participation of women in the service from 2028. The creation of the VAD will require the appropriate changes to the law, which the Latvian parliament will consider in the near future.

Men aged 18–27 will be able to choose to fulfil their obligation in one of four forms. The first comprises one year’s service (including one month’s leave) in the Latvian Armed Forces, which will consist of three months’ initial training, three months’ specialised training and five months’ service in a specific unit. The first draft of 500 (volunteer) recruits is expected to take place as early as January 2023; another 500 will begin service in the summer of 2023. In 2027, the number of people undergoing military training is expected to reach 7500. The second form of service provides for the signing of a five-year contract with the National Guard (Zemessardze), under which recruits will be required to participate in 20 days of training per year. From 2024, a third option will be introduced: an alternative, civilian service coordinated by selected ministries (such as the interior or health). Work on finalising its form is scheduled for next year. The fourth form will be specialised training for university students, in which it will be required to undergo 50 days of military training a year. This will be at basic level for the first two years of studies, while over the next three years it will be possible to obtain officer qualifications at the National Defence Academy of Latvia.

Commentary

  • The Latvian government’s decision to establish the State Defence Service, whose most important task will be to organise compulsory military service, was taken in the face of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Latvia has so far been the only Baltic state where conscription has not been undertaken since 2007 (in Lithuania it resumed in 2015, and in Estonia it has continued uninterrupted since the 1990s). The solutions currently being introduced are intended to strengthen the Latvian Armed Forces and adjust their ranks to new challenges. According to the Ministry of Defence, the current model, hitherto based on a professional army, has been exhausted, and the Latvian Armed Forces need to be strengthened by having more reserves on permanent standby. The ministry assumes that the proposed changes will bring the size of the armed forces in case of war to 50,000 soldiers within the next five years, of which 14,000 will be in active service, 16,000 in the National Guard, and 20,000 reservists. This would mean more than doubling the size of the army in comparison with its present numbers: 6700 in active service, 9500 in the National Guard and 3000 reservists.
  • However, the Latvian Defence Ministry’s plans may prove difficult to implement, as they require additional financial outlays over the coming years, estimated at €90–120 million annually. The current defence budget is €758 million (2% of GDP). The establishment of the VAD will be financed from the growing funds for defence, which are to reach the equivalent of 2.5% of GDP over the next three years. However, it may be a challenge to find the additional funds due to the approaching economic slowdown. Demographic issues, in particular the emigration of young people, may also pose a problem.
  • Latvia’s plans to establish a National Defence Service are modelled on measures introduced in the Nordic countries. The ideas of flexible forms of service, the possibility for recruits to choose from various options, and voluntary service for women have to a large extent been copied from the Finnish model. These solutions are supposed to make it possible to reconcile the fulfilment of military duty with plans in civilian life. The public mood indicates that the younger generation, which will be affected by conscription, is quite positively disposed towards the upcoming changes: one sign of this positive perception may be the increase in interest in serving in the Zemessardze over the past six months (in March 1800 people volunteered to join the Latvian National Guard). In subsequent months the numbers of volunteers were lower (from 200 to 500), but still much higher level than the equivalents a year earlier.