Sun, May 19 2013
November 25 2007 saw the end of the 127-year-old tradition of conscription in Bulgaria.
On that day, in various places around Bulgaria, 2413 conscript soldiers completed their nine-month service and stepped into history as the last conscript soldiers in Bulgaria. The soldiers from Sofia garrisons, all born in 1988, took part in a special ceremony in front of Alexander Nevski Cathedral on November 25, attended by Defence Minister Vesselin Bliznakov and armed forces chief General Zlatan Stoikov. The ceremony marked the final step in a reform process that started in 1998 with the aim of making Bulgaria's military a fully professional, volunteer force.
In 1998, the Bulgarian army had a complement of about 115 000 people, which was highly inefficient given the economic difficulties of the time. The then government, together with the Defence Ministry, adopted what was known as Plan 2004, which provided for decreasing the number of soldiers to 45 000 by the end of 2004 and ending conscription by 2007. As of December 1, this year the second part of this plan will become reality, Bliznakov said at the ceremony.
Earlier in September, it was announced at a Defence Ministry seminar that the number of military personnel was now about 39 000, with more than 4000 vacancies. At the seminar, it was announced that one of the possibilities for the ministry was to reduce the vacant posts, which would mean a decrease larger than initially planned.
The concept of Bulgaria's new, smaller military force is to have a rapid reaction force and two additional corps headquarters, all with subordinate brigades.
Through the years, various politicians have criticised the reform plan, claiming that Bulgaria would be left without a proper defence force at a time when the country's neighbours such as Greece and Turkey maintain large-scale armies. In response, a succession of defence ministers have defended the reform, citing Bulgaria's Nato membership as a guarantee of the country's protection, and the economic consequences of maintaining a large- scale military. Supporters of the reform said that transforming Bulgaria's military into a well-trained professional force would make it more effective than could be achieved with a larger number of soldiers.
In 2005, the Government started working on a Plan 2015, in the context of Bulgaria's obligations as a Nato member. These obligations require that eight per cent of the country's land forces should be sent to missions abroad and 40 per cent of the infantry should be trained and equipped to take part in such missions. As a result, the ministry has signed several offset deals to supply the military with Nato-standard equipment. Such was the deal signed in 2006 with Italy's Alenia Aeronautica. The company undertook to deliver five Spartan C-27J transport aircraft, worth 91 million euro, over a five-year period. Another deal was signed with the French Eurocopter for the delivery of 12 Cougar and six Panther helicopters worth 360 million euro for the air and marine forces. During the October 4 visit by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, a 750 million euro offset deal with France's Armaris was discussed. According to the deal, four GOWIND corvettes are to be produced for the Bulgarian navy. Earlier this year, the ministry terminated a contract with Israel's Elbit Systems for modernising 12 Mi-24 and six Mi-17 helicopters.
Ending conscription is simple enough, especially when doing so is stipulated in legislation. However, with conscription over, Bliznakov and Stoikov are faced with the problem of finding people who want to be professional soldiers. Although the process of hiring soldiers started a few years ago, there has not been a rush to the ranks.
The main problems are in the land forces. "The process of making the land forces completely professional has reached 83 per cent success so far," land forces commander Lieutenant-General Ivan Dobrev told journalists on November 25. "About 400 to 450 soldiers leave the army a year and the process of hiring soldiers will continue in the next few years," he said. To overcome this, the army has put a lot of effort in making the idea of joining the army attractive to the younger generation. Advertising TV spots appear regularly on Bulgarian National Television and a special website, profarmy.bg, has been launched offering, in its words, the chance to become "one of us".
Bliznakov and Stoikov agreed that the biggest problem is not the military's image, but the low rates of pay. At the moment a soldier can hope for starting pay packet of 400 leva, although the military provides a lot of additional benefits including food and clothing allowances, long annual leave and regular medical check-ups. In September this year, Bliznakov told journalists that among Nato member countries, Bulgaria was the country with the lowest allowances per soldier. A soldier's allowance for a year in Bulgaria was $2490, while for example, Romania had an allowance of $5000 and France up to $32 000.
The statistic shows that "the best money" that can be earned by a Bulgarian soldier is by taking part in missions abroad, mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan. A Bulgarian soldier sent to those two countries where Bulgaria has missions can earn about $3353 a month while an officer can earn about $4084. On July 30 Bulgaria sent its fourth consecutive contingent to Iraq. The 153 soldiers went on a six-month mission to guard a refugee camp north of Baghdad.
In March, the Cabinet decided to increase the number of Bulgarian soldiers in military missions in Afghanistan by 335 personnel, making the total number of Bulgarian soldiers in the country reach about 400 serving in the area around Kabul and Kandahar airport.
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