The First Year of Conscription in Latvia


The First Year of Conscription in Latvia

20 May 2024

In July 2023, the first Latvians started their 11-month State Defense Service, as the recently reinstated conscription is called. The first year of conscription has gone smoothly. There have been no severe mishaps or scandals, and public support has remained high. But the road ahead may encounter some bumps as Latvia started with low enrollment numbers and at a slow pace. There are already fewer volunteers to fill the ranks of soldiers, and the total number of conscripts will expand significantly over the next few years. The First Year of Conscription Latvia was the last country among its Baltic and Nordic neighbors to reinstate conscription, where compulsory service was previously abolished in 2006, effective 2007. While Lithuania and Sweden brought conscription back after Russia occupied Crimea and started the war in Ukraine’s east in 2014, Latvia did not follow the example of its neighbors (Estonia had not abolished conscription). Instead, Latvia opted to rely on the volunteer National Guard and a new national defense education course in schools to supplement its professional forces. Policymakers in the defense sector held unfavorable views on the reinstatement of conscription, and public opinion was polarized. Therefore, it was safe to assume that any defense minister risked political suicide by proposing a return to compulsory service. Conscription was traditionally associated with the Soviet system, which was known for violence against conscripts. Furthermore, young people generally saw no value in the service and did not want to interrupt their careers.  Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine provided an impetus to change course. The reasoning was as simple as the lack of soldiers: There were more than 800 vacancies in the National Armed Forces at the beginning of 2022. Latvia’s Minister of Defense Artis Pabriks announced the decision to bring back conscription in July 2022. Subsequently, he and his political party Attīstībai/Par! (Development/For!) were not reelected in the October parliamentary election, but it is not clear if the decision on conscription played a role in the election. The first two intakes of the 11-month state defense service consisted solely of volunteers. In July 2023, 253 volunteer conscripts started their service, and in January 2024, 125 volunteers began. In early 2024, an additional 20 individuals began voluntary service in the alternative conscript services — in the National Guard and student service. Public Opinion For three years in a row, Riga Stradiņš University, in cooperation with the Center for Geopolitical Studies Riga, has explored the public's views on conscription in nationally representative face-to-face public polls. All three polls were conducted by the SKDS research center with 1,010 respondents surveyed in May 2022, 1,002 in June 2023, and 1,004 respondents reached in March 2024.  In the May 2022 poll, two months before the Latvian Ministry of Defense announced its proposal to bring back conscription, only 44.7% expressed support for conscription, while 42.2% were against it.


Māris Andžāns

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