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FORMER MINISTER QUESTIONS SLOVAKIA'S ABILITY TO FULFIL NATO OBLIGATIONS

Big job losses at Defence Ministry

IT HAS EMERGED that the Slovak Defence Ministry cut its staff by 1,500 in a series of dismissals affecting civilian employees which began last year and continued up to the end of January. The ministry is now looking for further savings in other areas, according to Defence Minister Jaroslav Baška.

IT HAS EMERGED that the Slovak Defence Ministry cut its staff by 1,500 in a series of dismissals affecting civilian employees which began last year and continued up to the end of January. The ministry is now looking for further savings in other areas, according to Defence Minister Jaroslav Baška.

As a result of the sackings, the ministry will pay more than €870,000 in severance pay.
Despite the cuts, ministry spokesman Vladimír Gemela emphasised that meeting the terms of Slovakia’s NATO membership remains the number one priority.

“We are meeting all obligations stemming from our NATO membership,” Gemela said. “Our priority is not to break these obligations and promises, while re-structuring the [defence] sector.”

But Martin Fedor, a former defence minister and currently an MP for the opposition party Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), said that the ministry’s budget is not sufficient for Slovakia to modernise and restructure its army, as NATO membership requires. He told The Slovak Spectator that the present budget had been approved before the economic crisis had fully emerged, with the lowest percentage expenditure on GDP in the country’s history.

“There is a presumption that most obligations towards NATO will have to be re-evaluated and reconsidered,” Fedor said.

General staff faces restructuring

At the end of January, Baška announced that what he called ‘a small revolution’ would occur though a re-organisation of the General Staff (GŠ) of the Slovak Armed Forces. Baška told media that there would be layoffs, but did not specify when.

Ľubomír Bulík, the head of the GŠ, was quoted by the SITA newswire as saying that 450 professional soldiers’ jobs and another 270 civilian employee roles would have to be re-evaluated.

He did not state whether this process was likely to result in sackings. According to Bulík, the re-organisation should be completed by the end of this year. Cost-saving measures and dismissals are, according to Bulík, connected to Prime Minister Robert Fico’s stern criticism of the state of the army in October last year.

“It is definitely one of the reasons,” Bulík said.

The general staff of the armed forces will have a new structure after the changes, which were approved last December, are implemented. From the current eight staffs, the General Staff will shrink to just three – covering operations, operations’ support and security – Bulík said.

The three headquarters staffs will be oriented mainly towards foreign missions and operations, according to Gemela.

“This is the Defence Ministry’s priority,” Gemela told The Slovak Spectator.

Gemela said that separate commands for areas such as logistics or communications would be abolished. Slovakia currently has military missions in the Balkans, Cyprus and Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan is our number one priority, and this year the largest number of Slovak troops [sent abroad] will go there,” Gemela said.

He added that Afghanistan was the first priority for NATO as a whole. Gemela said that the highest number of foreign-posted troops – 196 – is currently in Cyprus, but that the number of Slovak troops in Afghanistan will soon increase to 246.

Re-structuring has so far affected management employees at the ministry, whose number will be further reduced as several departments are merged. Gemela confirmed that jobs in the present official structure of the armed forces which are not currently filled - numbering as many as several thousand - will also be abolished. Gemela, however, denied reports that 1,600 soldiers would be fired.

He noted that Baška started to push through savings measures in the armed forces immediately after his appointment as minister. A hospital in Košice formerly operated by the Defence Ministry was transferred to the Health Ministry. By September 1, 2008, two military academies in Liptovský Mikuláš were merged, ultimately leading to a reduction in the number of teachers, as well as ministerial officials. The reason for the civilian layoffs at the ministry, according to Gemela, is that whereas the army once had about 40,000 soldiers, it now has approximately 16,000. But despite the reduction, the number of civilian employees had remained at a level of around 8,000.

Martin Fedor, the former minister, told The Slovak Spectator that employee numbers in the defence sector should be reduced, but not without analysis to define the sector’s goals and the tasks it has to fulfil.

“Spontaneous decision about layoffs will definitely not bring about greater effectiveness in the way the sector functions,” Fedor said. “I do not consider it right to fire professional soldiers and civilian employees just because of a blanket political target by the prime minister, who required a 20-percent reduction in officials’ jobs.”

Fico announced in October 2008, well before the full effects of the global economic crisis in Slovakia became clear, that funds allocated to defence would be reduced.

“To give 31 billion crowns [approx. €933 million] to the army, and then watch boys who cannot even march…” Fico lamented at the time.

Moreover, the government recently announced that due to the economic crisis, it will aim to save almost €332 million across the public sector.

The Defence Ministry also intends to save on NATO operations. The government has announced that half of the soldiers and officials serving at NATO commands in the US and in Europe will be withdrawn in August. This is despite some of them having been deployed there just a few months ago. The government intends to save €10 million as a result of the measure.

According to Gemela, the ministry intends to withdraw support staff in particular.

However, Fedor criticised this move too. He warned that these lower- and middle-level personnel consisted mostly of young men who he described as “professionals who have been prepared at foreign schools”, and hence at considerable expense.

Technical problems

Bulík has noted publicly that the armed forces are entering ‘a critical period’, during which “the lifespan of [current] air force technology and army technology will end”.

The biggest problem faced by the Slovak armed forces, Bulík said, is that its equipment is wearing out and that its training facilities, except for the partly modernised Military Training Area Lešť, are in a poor condition.

Slovakia is – in Bulík’s words – the only country not to have purchased any new air technology since the Warsaw Pact broke up. Neither the main equipment of the air force nor of the logistics branch has been replaced or modernised. He said several measures had been drawn up to address the issue, but none had had any significant effect. He said the problem needs to be dealt with promptly, the Zoznam.sk website reported.

Aircraft purchase stalled

After a cabinet session on January 28, Baška told journalists that the ministry planned to buy at least two transport aircraft for the army. But according to the minister, the first aircraft might only be delivered in 2011.

Last year, the Italian company Alenia Aeronautica won a tender to supply its C-27J Spartan aircraft. But the Defence Ministry has yet to sign a contract with the company. “The tender is still open, until the contract is signed,” Baška said.

“This year, we have no financial resources for this; we shall see if there is some money in 2010,” Baška told the Aktualne.sk website. “We shall see how the economic crisis develops.”

The purchase of aeroplanes was approved by the government last July and the ministry announced a public tender for their supply in August. In October, however, Fico ruled out their immediate purchase and delayed the process indefinitely.

“For 2009, not a single crown has been planned for the purchase of transports,” he stated.

The new aeroplanes are intended to replace the current fleet of outdated Antonov An-26 aircraft. Next year, one of the two An-26 will be overhauled, and the other in 2013. The new planes are also intended to be available for rescue operations, firefighting, and to transport patients and injured Slovak citizens from abroad.

Gemela told The Slovak Spectator that the ministry plans to use the money saved from restructuring to purchase better-quality technology and new uniforms for ground forces.

“We are the only Visegrad-4 country, which has not bought any transport aircraft, nor ground forces equipment,” Gemela said. “The lifespan of a large part of the equipment used by the Slovak ground forces will expire in 2010, like its aircraft… and soldiers cannot go on foreign missions dressed in tracksuits.”

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