Ex Iron Wolf troops march in Lithuania 171219 credit bfbs.jpg
World

Which countries still have conscription?

Out of the 44 countries in geographical Europe, how many have mandatory military service?

Ex Iron Wolf troops march in Lithuania 171219 credit bfbs.jpg

What is conscription? 

Conscription is the mandatory legal obligation to serve in the country’s military. 

After completion of the military service, the person becomes a reserve, to be called upon in the state of war or emergency. 

Typically, mandatory enlistment in the armed forces applies to men after they turn 18, with women having the ability to volunteer. There are exceptions such as Norway where both men and women are expected to serve on par with each other to promote equality. 

Known as the draft in the USA, the UK compulsory enlistment in the armed forces was called National Service. 

National Service ended in 1960. However, those that had deferred their service because of education or career reasons still had to complete their service. The last conscript in the UK was discharged in 1963. 

The UK abolished National Service more than 60 years ago. 

Out of the 44 countries in the geographical continent of Europe, 15 still have conscription. Here is a look at which ones still have compulsory military service and why.

Russia

The biggest country in the world in terms of landmass has compulsory military service, with more than a quarter of a million young Russian men between the ages of 18 to 27 conscripted each year. 

According to the Russian Ministry of Defence website, mandatory service in the armed forces is "not a fun ride, no matter where you find yourself serving your country, but being a real man is being able to take the pain and hardship. This experience will make your further civilian life so much easier."

They may be on to something there. Many roles within Russian society such as government service, are officially off-limits to those that have not served. 

Most Russians are drafted straight after high school at the age of 18. 

Unlike in the US, those that have served their country do not get their higher education tuition paid for by the government, but there is an option to enter university using armed services experience as a form of qualification for entry.

Russian law stipulates that those who have completed their compulsory service have a right to join state universities on 'easy terms' which can mean the replacement of exams by interviews or a reduction in the number of exams.

Dodging the draft in Russia is a felony punishable by up to two years imprisonment. 

In 2007, the National Service was reduced from two years to one. However, for many young men, it is still not a very attractive way to spend a year of their lives and according to some reports, some years almost half of the would-be conscripts try to get out of serving. 

The Russian military is dependent on mandatory service personnel to fill its ranks, however, for the past 20 years, there has been a concentrated effort to move away from relying on conscripts.

Russia's vision for its armed forces is for it to be comprised mostly of 'kontraktniki', or in other words, career military personnel who have willfully signed a contract with the military, rather than forces being forced to join.

A Russian army conscript says goodbye before he sets off to the military site in St. Petersburg. (Picture: Alamy)

Netherlands

Officially, the Netherlands has mandatory military service, however, it is not enforced. 

After turning 17, a conscript receives a letter from the Ministry of Defence stating they are registered for military service. But, there is no obligation to show up.

The duty to attend military service was suspended on 1 May 1997. This means that it is not compulsory for conscripts to serve even though they have been conscripted. 

Until recently, conscription in the Netherlands has only applied to men. In 2018, the House of Representatives voted for conscription to apply to both men and women to encourage equal opportunity, even though women were previously allowed to volunteer to serve. 

Now, both boys and girls receive a letter when they turn 17 calling on them to perform their civic duty - whether they decide to act on it is completely up to them. 

Austria 

The landlocked country does not have a Navy. However, conscripts can serve in the Land Forces, Airforce or Special Forces. 

Austria issued a Declaration of Neutrality in 1955, meaning that it would not join any military alliance and would be responsible for its own defence. 

By law, all male residents of Austria have to register for military service after they turn 18 and before their 19th birthday. 

Those aged 17 have the option to enlist before their 18th birthday with parental or guardian consent. Joining before 18 is voluntary, and a male Austrian citizen cannot be conscripted before they legally become an adult. 

Conscripts make up 50 percent of the Bundesheer, the Armed Forces of the Republic of Austria. 

The combined military forces are made up of 16,000 professional soldiers and about 17,000 conscripts. 

The length of military service lasts for six months. Conscripts have the option to do substitute service if they conscientiously object. 

Substitute service lasts for nine months and can be performed in the form of social work or emergency relief, as well as in several public sector institutions such as hospitals. 

Members of "recognised religions" such as priests, theological students training for a career in the ministry or those engaged in pastoral or spiritual work are exempt from conscription.

Austria held a referendum in 2013 which resulted in 59.8 percent voting in favour of retaining the draft.

Belarus

Most soldiers in the Belorussian Armed Forces are conscripts serving for 18 months. 

During the Soviet Union, serving in the Belorussian Army was considered a prestigious honour, but in recent years, the numbers of deferments and attempts to dodge the draft have grown exponentially. 

In 2019, President Lukashenko announced that he was going to be tough on draft dodgers and planned to make it harder to get a deferment. 

One of the changes to the country’s legislature that year stated that if a man wishes to pursue a Master's degree or any other further education above a Bachelor’s, he will not be able to until he serves 1.5 years in the army or airforce. Belarus is a landlocked country so does not have a navy.

Switzerland

All able-bodied Swiss men are called up to do military service from the age of 19.

On average, two-thirds of conscripts are fit to serve. The basic service is 21 weeks long, followed by extra training annually.

There is an option for able-bodied men to opt out of military service through conscientious objection, in which case, the civilian would have to perform community service. 

Serving in the military is part of Swiss identity. Refusals to serve in both the military and community service is a criminal offence, but such cases are very rare.

Similarly to Austria, Switzerland held a referendum in 2013, asking its citizens whether conscription should be abolished. Overwhelmingly, 73 percent voted in favour of military service.

Denmark 

Denmark has imposed conscription of able-bodied men since 1849, as written in its Constitution the year that it was created. 

Today, obligatory service is limited to men and lasts from four months to a year. 

Women are able to volunteer to serve on the same terms as men.

Estonia

Mandatory military service in Estonia for male citizens lasts from between eight to 11 months. 

Men from the same area have the opportunity to serve together and then be grouped in the same reserve unit. 

About 3,500 conscripts enter service each year, serving in all the branches of the Estonian Defence Forces apart from the Air Force which does not have conscripts.

An Estonian conscript salutes battalion commander. (Picture: Alamy)

Finland

Every male Finnish citizen aged between 18 and 60 must do military service, after completion of which they are registered as a Finnish Defence Forces’ reserve.

There is also an option to perform non-military service which lasts for 347 days.

Military service can take less time depending on the type. Conscripts trained for rank-and-file duties serve for 165 days while training that requires special skills lasts for 255 days.

Conscripts trained to be officers, non-commissioned officers or for the most demanding special duties in the rank-and-file serve for 347 days.

Finland is not part of any military alliance and must therefore maintain the defence of its own borders. 

The Finish military allows for flexibility, giving the conscripts the option to choose where they would like to serve.

Norway

The Norwegian Armed Forces of today claim that their conscription system dates back to the Viking age.

The Constitution of Norway stated in 1814 - "As a general rule, every citizen of the State is equally bound to serve in the defence of the country for a specific period, irrespective of birth or fortune."

However, this statement truly came into effect in 2013 when the Parliament voted to extend conscription to include women, meaning that truly 'every citizen' of the state became equally bound to defend their country. 

Two years later, the Parliament’s decision came into effect and Norway became the first NATO member and the first European country to introduce compulsory military service for both men and women.

The duration of service is usually 12 months but could be as short as six or as long as 19.

Conscripts are called to service from 18 and are of service age until 44. However, in the event of war, the age of being fit for service rises to 55.

Moldova

All male citizens between 18 and 27 are required to serve one year in the military with the exceptions for medical or educational reasons. 

Bribery is common to receive a medical exemption. 

There have been plans in place to gradually abolish mandatory military service in favour of fully professional personnel. 

This is not the case in the breakaway Republic of Transnistria in the East of Moldova, which hugs the border of Ukraine.

Transnistria is an unrecognised state that declared its independence following a war with Moldova in 1991. The 'country' has its own currency, border guards, passports (which are useless outside of Transnistria), and Armed Forces. 

The Armed Forces of Transnistria are almost fully staffed by conscripts and there are no plans for conscription reform.

Lithuania

Conscription was abolished in Lithuania in 2008 but reinstated again in 2016 following tensions with Russia due to the war in Eastern Ukraine. 

Males aged 18 to 23 can be called to serve for the duration of nine months. 

Who gets drafted is decided by an electronic lottery. According to the Lithuanian Armed Forces, a computer system randomly generates a list of candidates that will be called up for mandatory military service. 

Failure to show up results in a €140 fine, and repeated attempts of the draft can result in criminal prosecution. 

The Lithuanian authorities have tried to make the relatively new prospect of mandatory military service as attractive as possible for young men by offering them monthly compensation of up to €3,123.90.

Future employability prospects of conscripts are further increased not just because of the experience gained in the military but also because the government offers employers six months of subsidies for hiring former conscripts.

Medical officers review a conscript at a military training centre, in Oster, 90 km from the Ukrainian capital Kiev. (Picture: Alamy)

Ukraine

Prior to the war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, the country was planning to move away from conscription. In October 2013, then-President Yanukovich abolished mandatory military service. 

However, after rising tensions with Russia conscription was reinstated again. 

This year, 13,575 males were conscripted into the military. Due to ongoing hostilities with its neighbour to the East, Ukraine has been expanding the size of its military, however, most of it is staffed by professional personnel. 

Sweden 

Sweden has had mandatory military conscription for males since 1901. It was temporarily abolished in 2010 and reinstated again in 2017 amid rising threats to national security. 

The Nordic country known for egalitarianism has been conscripting men and women since 2017. 

All citizens of conscription ages receive a letter calling on them to serve their country. The letter contains a questionnaire where one of the questions is 'do you think you would be a good fit [for military service]?'. The conscript has the option to answer that question with 'no' if they do not wish to serve, in which case there is no obligation to do so. 

According to the Swedish authorities, only those that are motivated to serve are chosen for the draft. 

Those that are drafted go on to serve between nine to 12 months. 

Which other countries have conscription?

There are around 85 countries worldwide that have some form of obligatory military training including Turkey, Cyprus, the Koreas, Israel, Syria, as well as Brazil.

France was the first modern nation state to introduce mandatory conscription as a condition of citizenship to provide forces for the French Revolution. Conscription continued in various forms until it was finally phased out at the beginning of the 21st century, in line with most countries in Europe.

However, some that have abolished conscription such as Serbia and Romania are looking into bringing it back in the near future. 

Morocco is one of the countries that has halted conscription for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and are due to resume intake of fresh recruits in 2022.  

There are also a number of countries that require their citizens to register for the draft such as China and the United States. 

Since 1940, the United States has required all able-bodied males aged 18 to 25 to register with the Selective Service, meaning they could be drafted into military service if required. However, the United States has not had to use the Selective Service since 1973 due to the high number of voluntary recruits. 

Similarly, in China, men aged 18 to 22 have to register for two years of military service. However, being the most populated country on earth, China has enough volunteers and has never had to rely on the list of compulsory registrants to fill the ranks.

Many nation-states, such as Argentina, have plans in place for conscription to be reinstated in wartime. 

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