Young Poles worry about “obligatory military training”

As the Polish government signs a new law on involvement in obligatory military training, young Poles fear that they could be called up for service. However, an expert argues that the army isn’t ready to mobilise any considerable number of reservists.

By Rikke Mathiassen and Maria Danmark

Warsaw, Poland – Three weeks ago, 24-year-old Piotr Świstak received a letter at his parent’s place. However, no one was home so the letter was delivered to the post office. As he got the message about the letter, a new military law had just stolen the media agenda. For a moment he was struck by fear, thinking: “It is from the Polish military”.

Piotr Świstak is just one of the young Polish men who now have to consider the possibility of being called up for military exercises due to a recent change in the law on involvement in military training. Until now only men who had previously served in the military could be drafted for military manoeuvres in time of a crisis. However, military experience is no longer a requirement.

“Fortunately, the letter wasn’t from the army but for a moment I was really scared that I would have to go,” he says.

24-year-old Piotr Świstak outside Warsaw University, where he studies Spatial Development. Photo: Rikke Mathiassen & Maria Danmark
24-year-old Piotr Świstak outside Warsaw University, where he studies Spatial Development. Photo: Rikke Mathiassen & Maria Danmark

A way to strengthen the Polish army

Since war broke out in neighbouring Ukraine, the Polish military have become an almost daily topic of discussion in the country.

In an recent interview on the Polish news channel TVP Info, the Prime Minister said that to underestimate the situation in Ukraine would be “naive”, but she also stressed that sending signals which would cause anxiety among citizens in Poland would be an exaggeration.

She emphasized that while Poland’s membership of NATO guarantees the country’s security, it is important for Poland to have its own strong army.

According to a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Poland’s defence budget will increase by 20 percent in 2015.

Besides military expenditures, the government has also introduced different measures on how to strengthen the Polish military. On March 9, the Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz announced an executive order on compulsory military training, which broadens the range of people who could take part in military training.

An example of such exercises could be to be summoned to a certain military unit, as 554 reservists were on March 23. According to the Ministry of Defence, this particular exercise was to check the military readiness and mobilization. The exercise was the first after a seven-year break, but the Ministry have stressed that it was only a matter of going back to good routines and had nothing to do with the situation in Ukraine.

Poles question: Who can be called up?

According to the previous law, only people with military experience could be called up for obligatory military training. However, it also meant that the people turned 18 after 2009 couldn’t be called up or participate in the exercises, as Poland abolished conscription that year.

However, the new law states that both reservists and people without any military experience who are transferred to the reserves could be sent for for compulsory military training, if the Polish army needs it. In Poland, all men are examined to determine whether or not they qualify for military training. If they pass, they are transferred to the reserve.

As soon as the new law was announced, discussion ignited up in Poland: Who could actually be called up for military service, when the law referred to people who are not soldiers? However, the spokesperson for the Minister of Defence, Jacek Sońta, was quick to calm down the masses on Twitter, writing that the training is only obligatory by name and will rely on volunteers.

Skærmbillede 2015-04-22 kl. 15.37.04According to Arthur Gruszczak, professor at the Institute for National Security at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, the public are more sensitive now and watch the government’s every move in this field, but “the real meaning of the order is that it will give the opportunity for people who are not reservists to volunteer and take part in military training. It has nothing to do with conscription.”

However, Gruszczak also explains that in theory all able-bodied men could be called up for military training but he doubts this will happen. “The Polish army is not ready to mobilize a considerable number of reservists,” he says.

“There are better people for the army than me”

At first, Piotr Świstak didn’t know what to think about the new law. “The people from the Ministry of Defence were saying that it is voluntary, however, the law actually gives the army permission to involve almost anyone they want,” he says. Piotr sees it as mixed signals from the government.

“It seems like they [the government] realised that the army isn’t well-prepared and that Putin is too unpredictable. Suddenly the government wants to train the society to be well-prepared for a war, but at the same time they are saying that this is just a small procedure and not preparation for war,” he says.

A few years ago, Piotr moved from his hometown in Białystok, in the Eastern Poland, to study in Warsaw. At the moment, he is studying a Master’s degree in Spatial Development at the Warsaw University. In the weekends, he is following a course in music production, which is what he wants to work with in the future.

He doesn’t see himself as the epitome of a soldier. “I am not very good at sports or this kind of things. I think that there are better people who can help the army,” he says.

Piotr was part of the first generation not to face conscription, as it was abolished just a few years before he was old enough. However, he is still part of the reserves, just like the other Poles who passed the mandatory medical examination to judge if they were fit for military service. For him the new law is not a small matter, as just a short spell in the military could affect his future plans.

“I wouldn’t be able to finish my Master’s degree or get the diploma for the music production. Only a month of training would make it impossible for me to finish my studies on time,” he explains.

Minister: No reinforcement of conscription

In 2009, after 90 years of conscription, Poland had its last group of draftees. Conscription ended after the Polish parliament abolished the law that had previously meant all men between the ages of 19 and 28 had to take part in nine months of compulsory service.

The move didn’t come as a surprise. President Kaczynski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk used it as an election campaign promise during the parliamentary election in 2008, in order to attract young voters.

The argument back then was that with troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans at the time, Poland needed to develop a smaller but more professional army in order to align itself with its NATO allies.

However, the Ukrainian crisis has brought the conscription back onto the agenda although Minister of Defence, Tomasz Siemoniak, has stressed that there will not be a discussion on the matter.

More Poles are pro-conscription

The change of regulation on involvement in military training happened almost at the same time as Lithuania decided to introduce conscription for a five year period. Where up to 3,500 men, between the ages of 19 and 26, are to be drafted each year.

But Minister Siemoniak stressed that there is no need for universal conscription in Poland, as the Polish army has a sufficient reserve. “Lithuania is a small country and feels such steps are appropriate,” he said in an interview with a ‘Kropka nad i’, a Polish television station.

Just like Piotr Świstak, a significant number of Poles are against the idea of conscription. In 2009, when the government dismissed it, 54 percent of the population was behind the idea. However, a recent opinion poll published by the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza showed that this number has decreased to 47 percent. At the same time, the portion of the population advocating for conscription has increased from 26 percent to 37 percent.

Later this year, the Polish parliamentary election is coming up and the leading, centre-right, opposition party in Poland, Law and Justice, have pledged to recommence conscription. A win for Law and Justice could mean that Poland would follow in the footsteps of Lithuania.