Balkan governments mull military service amid regional and global tensions

Balkan governments mull military service amid regional and global tensions
Serbia’s defence ministry has called for the country to reinstate mandatory military service. /
By bne IntelliNews February 14, 2024

Several governments in the Southeast Europe region have mooted the idea of restoring military service in recent weeks in response to heightened geopolitical tensions. Politicians in Croatia, Romania and Serbia have all discussed a potential move to a form of military service. 

There have been concerns about a potential escalation of tensions in the Western Balkans since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Since then, the international community has stepped up peacekeeping forces in both Bosnia & Herzegovina – where Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has long threatened the country’s Serb entity will secede – and Kosovo. 

Serbian defence minister pushes for military service

At the beginning of this year, Serbia’s defence ministry called for the country to reinstate mandatory military service amid escalating tensions in the Balkans.

The statement did not specify concerns about any particular security situation. However, Serbia has a long-unresolved conflict with Kosovo, which declared independence from Belgrade in 2008. The security situation in northern Kosovo, mainly populated by ethnic Serbs, worsened in 2023 and early 2024. 

According to the ministry statement, a service period of up to four months could be introduced, with the aim of enhancing the defence capabilities of the Serbian Armed Forces. The age range of potential conscripts was not mentioned. 

Minister of Defense Milos Vucevic pointed out that several other countries either already have or are considering a return to military service. 

“I emphasise, stronger army – stronger and safer peace,” he said on January 4. 

It is 13 years since Serbia scrapped compulsory military service back in 2011 as part of its efforts to transition towards a more professional armed forces.

Serbia is militarily neutral. It maintains good relations with Russia but also cooperates with Nato, while not aspiring to become a member of the Western security alliance.

Later in the month, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic commented on the issue in response to a journalist's question.

"In the modern world, as you can see, the madness continues every day, and you don't know when it will stop. And I am afraid that it will get worse. With what we are doing, we are protecting our country,” he said. 

The defence ministry plans to submit an official analysis to Vucic by May.

At the same time, Serbia is ramping up military spending and Vucic announced on January 14 that the country will make its “largest investment so far” in military equipment in 2024. 

Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) show a strong increase in Serbian military spending from a low of $710mn in 2016 to as high as $1.4bn in 2022. 

The Balkan Defence Monitor published by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP) showed that Serbia’s defence spending also rose strongly as a share of GDP. As of 2022, it was the only country in the Western Balkans to spend 2% of GDP on defence.

Zagreb considers mandatory military service

Neighbouring Croatia is also considering mandatory military service, as announced by Defence Minister Ivan Anusic. Three proposed scenarios are set to be finalised and made public this week. 

Under the proposed plan, all men aged 18 or under would be conscripted in the event of a major threat or aggression.

Anusic suggested that three months of training would suffice to improve physical fitness and learn essential military skills. He added that military service “offers socialisation and life skills beyond just preparation for conflict”.

The minister did, however, acknowledge expected resistance to the idea.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said on February 12 that the decision to consider certain aspects of compulsory military service, which has gathered public attention recently, is “not arbitrary but rather a response to the evolving security landscape”, N1 reported on February 13.

Addressing reporters after a session of the HDZ party leadership, Plenkovic spoke of the need to assess the global context surrounding Croatia. He pointed to various international events such as Russia's aggression against Ukraine, Hamas's attacks on Israel, tensions in Kosovo, threats from illegal migration and a series of terrorist incidents in Europe over the past 15 years. 

"This discussion isn't arising out of caprice. We're observing global events and the actions of other responsible governments. We must remain vigilant and not ignore the numerous crisis hotspots surrounding us," Plenkovic said.

He clarified that Zagreb is not considering a complete reinstatement of compulsory military service but rather an exploration of various models.

Romania to boost military reserves

In Romania, Minister of Defence Angel Tilvar said on February 5 that a scheme to boost the military reserve force through voluntary and paid three-month military service is envisaged. However, Romania does not plan to introduce mandatory military service. 

Previously, the head of the army Gheorghita Vlad spoke in an interview with Europa Libera about the need to better prepare the population for war. 

However, both Vlad and Tilvar excluded the option of compulsory service – an option backed by the the leader of the far-right Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR), George Simion.

Tilvar said that the Romanian army has decreased from 320,000 to approximately 80,000 people and the average age of the reserve force has increased significantly. The voluntary, paid military service scheme will be open for people aged 18-35.

Vlad’s comments drew an angry response from Russian ambassador Valeri Kuzmin, who said February 7 that Romania has to expect “some consequences” for its support for Ukraine and comments about preparing the population for war.

Few countries in Europe currently have mandatory military service. One exception is Moldova, where male citizens aged between 18 and 27 must serve in the military  for one year, though there are exceptions, including for medical reasons. In the Russia-backed Moldovan separatist republic of Transnistria, the armed forces are almost entirely made up of conscripts.