Uproar Over a Volunteer Army

Austrian Defense Minister Norbert Darabos’ military reform proposal has sharply divided the country

Recruits training with the self-propelled gun (M-109), part of the Austrian artillery | Photo: Austrian Armed Forces

Despite all appeals to authority, the hasty attempt to reform universal compulsory military service has turned into a royal snafu.

For a start, Minister of Defense Nobert Darabos’ plan for an all-volunteer army was not well received in some quarters, and when General Edmund Entacher expressed reservations, the minister fired him. Many were outraged.

Darabos handelt Stalinistisch,” (Darabos is acting like a Stalinist) wrote the Austrian center-right daily Die Presse. It was seen as high-handed behavior and has led to growing distrust among party members, including his own Social Democrats (SPÖ), and the public.

“Converting to an all-volunteer army could be next to impossible to undo,” General Entacher had said in an interview with the Austrian news weekly Profil, adding, “Why should I introduce a new system, that is full of risks and has no future? No rational person would do this.”

Darabos has been criticized for acting on his own, not listening to the advice of experts and insiders. “If constructive criticism from a high ranked general leads to [Entacher’s] dismissal, then Darabos is not worthy of his position and is ripe for retirement,” said the Austrian Workers and Employees Coalition (ÖAAB) chairman Matthias Tschirf for Die Presse.

The issue has been picked up across the media over the weeks since the Jan. 25 dismissal, and ignited a debate across all segments of Austrian society. There was no consensus: the government was divided, parties disagreed, the population was split and the president concerned.

Article Creates Uproar

Sides were already drawn before the firing, however, following an article in the Viennese populist daily, the Kronen Zeitung, which appeared to encourage draft-dodging. The Feb. 13 article, “Flucht vor der Wehrpflicht droht,” (“Flight from Compulsory Military Service”), read like an indirect call to ignore the conscription altogether.

Cries of “unlawful” rang out from the Austrian Militia Union, as well as the FPÖ and ÖVP. Michael Schaffer, President of the Confederation of Militia Unions, spoke of “abetting crime,” and “incitement” at the cost of national security, wrote Die Presse. FPÖ General Secretary Herbert Hickl further accused the Kronen Zeitung of “playing an irresponsible journalistic game with fire, at the expense of young men.”

Legal alternatives to military service already exist; any young Austrian of military age can elect any of several forms of Civil Service (Zivildienst), that include working in health care of social service organizations. There are also categories of physical and emotional exemptions for poor eyesight, injuries or other crippling conditions.

To help young people take advantage of these alternatives, Green Party Security speaker Peter Pilz plans to offer counseling (Wehrvermeidungsberatung), if the public does not vote to abolish the compulsory military service in time for any individual decision. In an unusual case of seeing eye to eye, Pilz said the Krone “cares” about the 24,000 young men that the ÖVP and FPÖ have forgotten, according to Die Presse. Fears aside, however, the Kronen Zeitung article does not seem to have increased applications for deferment, the Defense Ministry reported, nor a “flight” from compulsory military service.

Split Opinions

To Vice Chancellor Josef Pröll, Darabos’ action showed a “lack of leadership.” If Darabos could only implement his ideas by dismissing top personnel, it was a “serious crisis,” he said on ORF’s news program Zeit im Bild (ZIB). Pröll was for keeping the army as it is,  wrote Die Presse.

“We are of a different opinion,” commented SPÖ party leader Josef Cap.

The public appears to be almost evenly divided on the question, with a 50:50 split according to a recent study by the SORA-Institute that interviewed 600 Austrians from the age of 16 up. It was only over the age of 60 that those polled were more skeptical of a change.

Throughout the discussion, Austrian President and Commander in Chief, Heinz Fischer, has remained firmly against any change, and thus opposes converting from universal military service to voluntary.

“There is a lot of evidence that a professional army would be more expensive,” Fischer told the Vorarlberger Nachrichten and Tiroler Tageszeitung. He does not agree with Darabos’ calculations, he told Die Presse, which show that the change would be cost neutral. He also sees the army as having an important integrative function in the society.

“Young Austrians from different social backgrounds serve for a common goal, namely the safety of our democratic Republic,” he said.

The Legislative Challenge

The transition from compulsory military service to an all voluntary army is not only a matter of political preferences or personal beliefs, but also of hard budgetary concerns, which become more and more binding in times of financial constraints.

More and more of the present recruits are not soldiers, but come with other skills and provide other essential services. Of the 24,000 recruits in 2010, 5,500 worked as drivers, 2,600 as guards, 2,100 as stewards in Officers casinos and 1,400 as cooks, according to a parliamentary questionnaire published in the Salzburger Nachrichten. Another 800 worked as writers and mechanics. Others filled necessary jobs as locksmiths, graphic artists, car-mechanics and painters. A reform of the army would mean replacing all these employees with private sector personnel that would in many cases be more expensive, a cost that would be born by the taxpayers. These costs may currently not be fully acknowledged, because voluntary service does not benefit from full social protection as the Wiener Zeitung recently noted.

In the end, however, it may be simply the legislative process that make any change in policy unlikely. An amendment to the constitution would require a 2/3-majority in Parliament and the presence of at least one half of the Parliamentarians, says Clemens Jabloner, a renowned public law professor and President of the Austrian Administration Court, in an interview. A referendum will not be required, he says. However, with the current coalition lacking the required majority for changing the federal constitution, long debates and new alliances would be necessary for any fundamental change of this kind.

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