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Serbia considers reintroducing a mandatory military draft as regional tensions simmer

The Serbian army has maintained close ties to Russia, from which it purchases most of its arms, including fighter jets and tanks

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (C-R) attends a formal academy on the occasion of the national day of the Serbs in the Republic of North Macedonia, in Skopje, Republic of North Macedonia, 27 January 2024.GEORGI LICOVSKI (EFE)

Serbia is considering reintroducing compulsory military service, its president said Tuesday, citing tensions in the Balkans and elsewhere in Europe.

President Aleksandar Vucic said top army commanders gave him “a strong argumentation” in favor of the reintroduction of a mandatory draft, which was suspended in 2011 in a push to professionalize the armed forces.

The populist Serbian president did not specify when the draft would return. He said the national parliament, which is dominated by his allies, would vote on the proposal, which comes after a long campaign by nationalists in favor of it.

“We are not threatening anyone,” Vucic said as he inspected an exhibition of military hardware after meeting with the commanders. “Today, if you don’t have (a strong) army, you don’t have a country.”

“We will see if it (military service) will last 90 or 100 days, or maybe 110 days,” Vucic told reporters. “As well as when it will be introduced and how the financial and logistical assumptions will be fulfilled.”

Opposition politicians and other critics of a draft have questioned the logic of a military buildup when Serbia is almost completely surrounded by NATO member countries which have superior firepower in case of a conflict. There are also concerns that the government may struggle to foot the bill for a larger military.

Tensions have been high in the Balkans, which went through the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Although formally neutral, the Serbian army has maintained close ties to Russia, from which it purchases most of its arms, including fighter jets and tanks.

Although formally seeking European Union membership, Serbia has refused to introduce sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Tensions have revolved primarily around Serbia’s former province of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, which Serbia and allies Russia and China have not recognized. Serbia has raised the combat readiness of its forces on the border with Kosovo several times over the past several months.

Serbia has also maintained cordial relations with NATO, whose peacekeeping troops have been stationed in Kosovo since 1999, when the Western military alliance intervened to stop Serbia’s bloody crackdown on Kosovo Albanian separatists.

Another volatile region is Bosnia, where Bosnian Serb separatist leader Milorad Dodik has been threatening to declare the Serb-controlled half of Bosnia independent and unite it with neighboring Serbia. Dodik accompanied Vucic at the meeting with army commanders on Tuesday.

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