VILNIUS - Defense Minister Juozas Olekas has signed a decree ending mandatory military service in the country and beginning the transition to a professional army. The decree, which was approved Sept. 15, went into effect immediately.
"By confirming the marginal national defense figures, the Seimas [Lithuanian parliament] passed a political decision to switch over to forming a professional, volunteer-based army," Olekas said in a press release.
"This year we have almost enlisted the provisioned number of young officers, with very successful enlistment for professional military service, therefore a decision was made to no longer implement conscription," he said.
The decree also, however, required current conscripts to stay at their posts until at least July 1, 2009.
Although Lithuanians will no longer be subject to the draft, the constitutional clause stating that all citizens must be willing to "defend one's homeland" is still in effect.
"The constitutional obligation to defend one's homeland remains in place, and we invite all youths to meet this obligation by enlisting in the national defense volunteer forces and coming to serve in the professional army," the defense minister said.
Opposition parties say that the country can't properly defend itself with a professional army and claim that the move is a populist ploy for the ruling party ahead of the upcoming elections.
"We can only regret that the Social Democrat government is making especially important and controversial decisions on national defense issues at the time of an election campaign," National Security and Defense Committee member and opposition MP Rasa Jukneviciene was quoted by BNS as saying.
"[A] professional army alone cannot warrant wide territorial defense and the nation's readiness to counter not only potential military aggression, but also other types of attacks against Lithuania," she said.
The Homeland Union - Lithuanian Christian Democrats have made a proposal on how to prepare the public for defending its country after halting conscription, and thus implement a provision of the constitution, she said.
"By making this decision, the Defense Ministry is trying to contrast between conscript army and professional army. A professional army must remain the nucleus of national defense, and, as suggested by foreign experts, the Baltic countries must prepare a mobilized reserve. The government doesn't even explain as to what form the Constitutional provision that Lithuanian citizens must be prepared to protect their country will take," Jukneviciene said.
Homeland Union 's Lithuanian Christian Democrats plan to emulate Finland if they are successful in the Oct. 12 elections. They say that the Finns have a good system whereby citizens are enrolled in defense courses.
Under their policies, everyone between 18 and 24 would take a seven-week course at a convenient time.
"This is how it is done in Finland. Every year they are invited to revise their training," Jukneviciene said.
She emphasized that Lithuania needed to introduce basic military training programs for the entire population if they are going to be able to defend the homeland. "We have just 2 percent of people ready to protect their own country. We need to take measures for that," she said.