It is commendable that the new Slovak government is thinking about introducing a similar program in the context of defence policy reforms. It should be in the state's interest to cultivate this special relationship with the population.
The new Slovak government, led by Igor Matovič wants to strengthen the preparation of the population for the state defence. It plans to introduce changes in education, improve the voluntary military training programme, and launch a broad information campaign.
These steps should finally get Slovakia on the train, which our closest neighbours and more distant NATO allies are on for some time.
Join a club
Today, an individual who is interested in military issues in Slovakia can join a military history club. Or you can become a member of a vibrant airsoft community or expand the ranks of dozens of mil-sim enthusiasts who copy real military or police units with high-level equipment and tactics.
On the other side of the spectrum, of course, there is professional service in the Armed Forces of the Slovak Republic. However, for many, it is not possible or attractive, for various reasons such as age, health, or low financial attractiveness of the military on the labour market.
For those young men and women who do not see their future fulltime in the uniform but a weekend hobby with airsoft replicas is not satisfying, there are no alternatives left.
At the same time, a specific societal demand can be identified for this. In a non-public representative survey of public opinion for the Ministry of Defence of the Slovak Republic, up to seventy per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that patriotic education and training should be given more attention in the armed forces.
Also, the most common answer among those interested in the military profession was that their primary motivations are a sense of patriotism and the need to protect their homeland. A sad memento of the untapped opportunity from the state is also the eight years of presence of the Slovak Conscripts, an unofficial nationalistic paramilitary group, who have given such a possibility of self-realisation to many because the state has not done so.
Satisfy their interests
Quoting directly the government programme declaration, the government ” will create the conditions to satisfy citizens’ interest in military issues and strengthen efforts to combat extremism and disinformation”, the authors seem to be aware of this dimension of the issue.
Many young people, patriots, or just military enthusiasts will satisfy their interests aside unofficial militia with shady connections and questionable history just because they are not able to find these elements anywhere else. Therefore it is high time that the government acted responsibly, offers a functional alternative, and dries up the resource pond for Slovak Conscripts and similar groups.
Living off the peace dividends, general demilitarisation since the end of the Cold War and the subsequent professionalisation of our militaries have significantly changed the traditional setting of military-civilian relations. Not so long ago, most of the male population had direct and very personal experience with the military through compulsory military service.
This is not the case today. The civilian and military worlds are relatively strictly separated and overlap only very rarely. For decades, the citizen was both a security object and a subject. During his life, the citizen took over the roles of both the provider and the recipient of security.
After all, even today there is written in Slovak Constitution of the Slovak Republic that the defence of the Slovak Republic is a duty and a matter of honour for citizens. Similarly, the Polish Constitution states that “It shall be the duty of every Polish citizen to defend the Homeland.”
Of course, today the providers’ role is realised as a service of a relatively small group of professionals, for whom it is often a lifelong mission. Most citizens are in the position of passive beneficiaries, who finance through their taxes the functioning of a professional security and defence apparatus.
Yet, this is how the average citizen got “out of the game” in terms of state defence. At the same time, training, education, or preparation in this area has disappeared from our civilian lives.
A training programme
The content of such training must include first aid medical training, basics of civil protection, civic-military education, the basics of topography, self-defence or mutual assistance. Effective implementation is essential and reduces the loss of life and property in the event of a crisis, military or non-military threat to the state.
Also, we shouldn’t underestimate the socio-political aspects either. Such a programme can generate for its graduates’ new social bubbles and create a closer relationship with their local community since volunteers will be trained and prepared to help. This can strengthen the collective functioning of society or improve the image of the state in the eyes of its citizens, which can strengthen social cohesion and reduce polarisation.
Patriotism is overdue in 2020, and it should be in the state’s interest to cultivate this special relationship with the population. Another positive effect may be the expansion of the recruitment pool of people interested in serving in the army and other security forces, who will be better physically, mentally prepared with better entry-level knowledge than before.
The new population state defence training system must not remain isolated on the agenda of the Ministry of Defence. On the contrary, the Armed Forces, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Ministry of Education must also be involved. The preparation should start with the incorporation of civic-defence education into the framework of educational plans for primary schools. Teachers will need appropriate methodologies, textbooks, and qualification courses.
The changes must also reflect the curricula of pedagogical faculties so that for the next generation of teachers the defence of the state is not a distant and abstract topic.
Part of the necessary lecturing capacity can be found in associations of former soldiers, sports shooting clubs or civic associations with activities close to military activities and preparation for defence. An accreditation programme may be established for these organisations, which would open the door for them to work closely with the military, elements of the integrated rescue system, or local government representatives.
Some positive and negative lessons learned can be found in Poland in cooperation between so-called pro-defence organisations and the state.
Their activities could be coordinated and controlled by an umbrella semi-state association, which would simultaneously manage state subsidy programmes in this area. If we decide to include technical and sports-defence activities, we come to a model that will not be very far from the former Union for Cooperation with the Army, Zväzarm. The Union, of course, bore the ideological burden of the previous socialist regime.
Inspiration beyond the past
However, the model of the state purposefully supporting associations and club activities as a tool for developing the defence potential of citizens and society, is not bad. However, for inspiration, it is necessary to look beyond the past.
Kaitsellit, the Estonian Defence League, is a 15 thousand members strong paramilitary association defined by its law and organized on a territorial basis. Within the organisation, there are youth structures Young Eagles and Daughters of the Homeland for young boys and girls.
The League’s activities range from participating in military exercises with the Estonian army or NATO allies, supporting police or rescue activities, summer military camps for young people, organizing cultural, charitable, and social activities for both members and non-members.
In Latvia, the Youth Guard Jaunsardze, is the central point of the work with young people education and preparation for state defence of the state. This organisation, established by the Ministry of Defence, has been operating since 1992, and today, with 8,000 members between the ages of 10 and 21, it is the largest youth organisation in the country.
The Lithuanian Rifleman Union has a somehow similar story. The organisation is a primary spot for voluntary civic defence participation, patriotic education, and training for Lithuanians. About 6,000 members are in the age group of 11 to 18 years, and another approximately 6,000 members are adults. For example, the Union is also highly active in helping to deal with the current situation with the Covid-19 pandemic.
In Poland, it is worth mentioning the project of so-called klasy mundurowe – uniformed classes, which today are attended by up to 50,000 high school students – or the programme of the Polish Ministry of Defence for universities Legia Akademicka, which facilitates its graduates easier entry into the Armed Forces.
In the Czechia, for several years the preparation of citizens for state defence is realized under the POKOS programme, which is managed by the Ministry of Defence. The current programme conception for the years 2019-2024 envisages a financial contribution of 200 million Czech crowns per year for further programme development.
Also in the UK, youth work and preparing the population for defence is not an unknown topic. The British Ministry of Defence has a long tradition of supporting four cadet youth organisations. In cooperation with schools and adult volunteers, a space for meaningful, active leisure time is created, the development of the skills favouring cadets in adulthood on the labour market and, of course, the development of patriotic feelings and respect for the British military traditions.
Many cadet programmes also have a social character and goals for the prevention of crime or extremism among young people. In 2014, 130,000 cadets and 28,000 adult volunteers were active in supporting their activities.
It is commendable that the new Slovak government is thinking about introducing a similar program in the context of defence policy reforms. In times of economic recession, when we will be pushed by much more urgent problems, it will not be easy to keep this topic “on the radar”, so to speak.
Unfortunately, over the past four years, virtually nothing has been done in this area, although both key ministries of education and defence have been held by the Slovak National Party (SNS).