Tending an undernourished army

  • 2001-07-26
  • Nick Coleman
With lobbying for NATO membership intensifying, Girts Valdis Kristovskis, Latvia's defense minister since 1998, has recently faced one crisis after another - from a diphtheria outbreak among cadets last September, to the death of a soldier in a hazing incident in May, plus a dressing down from Prime Minister Andris Berzins after defense manufacturer British Aerospace paid for him to visit its offices in London last summer. Still, he is keeping a brave face. Interview by Nick Coleman.

The Baltic Times: The army has been hit by health problems recently, with a diphtheria outbreak in September at the National Defense Academy and a mumps outbreak at the Aluksne army base in the spring. What are you doing about this?

Kristovskis: We may lack experience, but it is necessary to understand that things can go wrong even in the best conditions - bacteria can enter an army unit. Our priority is our people, giving them normal living standards. Our infrastructure was so destroyed by the Soviet system that it will take a long time to create the kind of conditions found in normal, developed European states.

As for the problems at Aluksne, this is a matter of the entire state health care system. Mumps is a disease everyone needs to be immunized against. If soldiers are in a big group and have not all been immunized in childhood something can go wrong.

But we have a system. If six or seven conscripts get sick we can quarantine them and stop taking new ones. Our medical staff know what to do. When you receive people from wider society these things can happen.

Regarding the diphtheria outbreak at the Armed Forces Academy it is very difficult to identify the cause. We invited people from the World Health Organization to come and investigate and no one could really say what the source was. So it is not surprising that some people think it may have been a provocation. Everyone involved in food preparation was inspected and everything in the system was checked by health care professionals.

Recently I personally approved new regulations to protect cadets. We have already begun work to improve infrastructure, so students would not live 100 to a barrack room but in apartment-type accommodation for two or four people. Creating strong infrastructure at the Armed Forces Academy is a priority and every year investment increases.

TBT: The corruption watchdog Transparency International recently criticized your acceptance of a free trip to London paid for by British Aerospace, during its unsuccessful bid to supply an air defense system last summer. Transparency International says your ministry initially tried to conceal who paid.

Kristovskis: There was no denial of who paid. Maybe there was a lack of experience in interpreting the law. I argued that I had had the opportunity to see equipment offered by French and Italian manufacturers during official visits to those countries, but later we thought I should also see British Aerospace's equipment.

It was during my vacation and a trip had not been budgeted for by the ministry. British Aerospace said no problem - we want to show you our products. To me it looked logical to go and visit.

But looking at their products was just one part of the visit. British Aerospace had prepared a specific cooperation program. We wanted to establish relationships that would help us develop our research and development program. In Soviet times there was a highly developed research and development program and it was this that was the main subject of our discussion. Seeing their products was just something parallel.

But maybe it was due to lack of experience. I had never been in a situation where someone interpreted my actions so differently. It was not such a big problem, but I have learned my lesson and will never again accept such an offer in my political life.

I understand how people interpreted this, but we were trying to find counterparts for our scientists and British Aerospace was interested in sharing its expertise.

TBT: You have set up an ombudsman system to combat bullying and hazing, but one soldier was killed in May and there have recently been statistics showing the persistence of bullying. What are you doing to solve the problem?

Kristovskis: Levels of bullying are decreasing every year. The situation is three or four times better than in 1994, when there were nine deaths. This latest death was a big surprise for me. The information I had was that as a result of steps taken at the end of the 1990s the problem had been solved. But now we realize there was not enough control exercised over the military units. We did some research in the spring and found the root of the problem. We have since developed a control mechanism.

The problem was that in the last big change to the obligatory military service law in 1996 to 1997 we became able to accept poorly educated people - orphans, those without high school certificates, and so on. The result is that a tenth of our new conscripts have a criminal record. They are difficult to work with and a potential source of problems.

Another problem was the lack of professional instructors for the obligatory military service units. Some units had only a third of the instructors they needed. Last year I ordered the establishment of an instructors' school in Cesis, which opened in the autumn. It's hard to raise morale without first-rate professional instructors.

The ombudsman system is based on Scandinavian and German models, in which soldiers elect an ombudsman themselves. It began with a pilot project this winter and is now in place in all units. It is necessary to stabilize the climate so soldiers feel protected.

There's a telephone line in all units that soldiers can call if they feel uncomfortable or if hazing is going on. I receive information on the calls each week.

Also, a commander has been assigned to devote his whole time to problems associated with obligatory military service and an ombudsman from the Parliament has been appointed to see how we can improve relations with parents so that there is a dialogue between soldiers, their parents and commanders.

TBT: Would it not be more cost effective not to have a conscript army and instead to focus on creating a smaller, professional force?

Kristovskis: The concept of compulsory military service is important and will continue to be so for a long time. The advantage of our total territorial defense system is that it helps the state develop a feeling of responsibility among the young, so that they cooperate with the state. The state is not only responsible for the young, but the young are responsible for the state. Conscription strengthens this relationship between society and the state.

On the other hand, for a young state and a young defense system it is not easy to develop a 100 percent safe and professional obligatory military service system. It cannot be effective without enough non-commanding officers.

We have to think how to develop compulsory military service, to think about what they are doing on a daily basis. An effective infrastructure is needed, an education system, weapons, the soil in which soldiers can grow.

It was the case that they spent most of their time guarding and doing kitchen work - only using guns, shooting and training a few times a year. We have to develop standards so that they are always gaining knowledge that is useful for their lives and have less time to develop unproductive relationships that lead to hazing.

Developing a professional education process is a priority. At the moment we have just 2,000 soldiers in obligatory military service units. Another 1,000 guard prisons, which is a pity. We are preparing a program to take them out.

We want to increase the number of people doing compulsory military service to between 3,000 and 3,500. But we won't increase numbers until existing units are fully equipped and have instructors.

TBT: When NATO officials visit here they often want to talk not only about military matters, but corruption, treatment of minorities and even how Latvia deals with the Holocaust. Do you think those are legitimate questions?

Kristovskis: At the Ministry of Defense we mainly discuss military issues and the development of our defensive capability. But of course there are also discussions about the development of democracy and the economy. We describe our government's faults but also our roots. Unfortunately our society has to solve problems whose roots are in World War II, particularly regarding the restoration of property relations.

Because people want to achieve stability fast, they are morally weakened. We are really somewhere between two big economic systems, that of Russia and its moral and economic climate and Europe. It is difficult for society to immediately adopt the highest principles.

Those who are active in developing the economy do not always read the law - they look for the fastest way to get a result. It is not good, but it is what happens in the process of transformation.

The government's task is to create conditions, for example a law enforcement system, which develop the business environment, help people to be honest and reach European standards, as fast as possible.

So much depends on the economy. The faster the economy develops, the faster a middle class develops and the faster stability is created in the biggest part of society. Just telling people they are not good doesn't create maximum stability. Latvia as a state has the resources and willingness to return to being a normal, civilized economy.

TBT: How many conscripts do not speak Latvian and what are you doing about them?

Kristovskis: About 30 percent have very poor Latvian. They are from Daugavpils and the Latgale region, to the east and from Riga - places where there are many opportunities not to use Latvian.

This is another argument in favor of conscription, that Russian speakers have the opportunity to learn more about the Latvian state - its intentions, language and culture – and to become closer to the state. We had specific language training programs, but now that task is part of daily training and specific language training is not necessary. When they join they have some understanding and catch the language fast.