VILNIUS - Lithuania may soon join the ranks of those NATO countries with volunteer-only armies. Defense Minister Juozas Olekas said that no final decision on whether to completely phase out Lithuania's draft had been taken, but he stressed that the number of conscripts will sharply decline in the coming years.
"The decision on whether to switch to a professional army [from a draft army] will be made by politicians when they are ready. I believe it will take some time. Now the public must express its opinion on the matter, which will be discussed by the politicians," Olekas told journalists after a special meeting between army officials and members of the Parliament's national defense and security committee on Nov. 27.
The minister said that Lithuania's transition to a professional army would cost some 37 million litas (10.7 million euros).
"One conscript soldier costs about 11,000 litas a year, while one professional soldier costs 35,000 litas. Our budget can afford the transition, but this is not a financial issue," Olekas said.
Lithuania currently belongs to a minority of NATO countries that still draft conscripts, including Estonia, Greece, Turkey, Norway, Germany and Denmark. The majority of alliance members have professional armies, with several countries planning to phase out drafting procedures.
Latvia, for example, decided to cease drafting this year. Romania plans to follow suit at the beginning of 2007. Bulgaria is set to switch to a professional army in 2010 and Poland in 2011.
Lithuania has also begun decreasing its number of army conscripts - 3,210 draftees are to remain by the end of this year, as compared with 3,500 conscripts in 2006. By December, conscripts will make up less than 10 percent of Lithuania's 18,250-strong army. Women make up 16 percent of the Baltic states' armed forces.
The number of conscripts is to decline further in coming years, reaching 1,600 by the end of 2008.
Valdas Tutkus, commander of the Lithuanian army, said the armed forces must reduce the number of conscripts to meet growing requirements.
"The armed forces [needs to] obtain new, modern weapons, like 'stingers' or 'Javelins.' These modern means of transport can only be consigned to professionals," Tutkus said.
Lithuania's term of conscript is currently 12 months. Men aged 19-26 are obliged to serve if they are drafted.
Some 2,000 men are called to serve in the army every year. Since 1991, a total of 80,000 men have been drafted in Lithuania, which has a population of 3.4 million.