Defence Minister Christoforos Fokaides has a mountain to climb if he is to keep the government’s pre-election pledge of reducing army service by the end of government’s current term, in February 2018.
A second equally pressing challenge is handling the mountain of rusfeti (special favours) requests landing on Fokaides’ desk every day.
Before and after his election victory, President Nicos Anastasiades often talked of his intention to reduce the mandatory military service from 24 to 14 months. Cyprus has the longest mandatory military service in the European Union, with non-combatants serving 33 months.
Speaking to his close advisers this week, the Cyprus Weekly was given the impression that Anastasiades hopes to live up to his promise.
It would seem his primary problem is that he wants to reduce the service length without reducing the military in numbers.
Such a plan requires the creation of a small professional army to compensate in defence terms. Two years into the bailout programme agreed with the Troika, the state does not have the money to recruit professional soldiers.
Nevertheless, the Defence Minister has talked privately about reducing the service as soon as possible in a way that is feasibly within the mandate of the current Disy minority government.
This poses a significant challenge, given the fact that cutting the service drastically by 10 months and spending the savings on a small professional army won’t garner much support in a parliament that is traditionally very conservative as far as defence matters are concerned.
People who know the system, liken rusfeti in the army to “hydra of Lerna”, the ancient beast with nine heads that Hercules killed in his second of his famous twelve labours.
For decades now, MPs and political party apparatchiks pester the Defence Ministry’s higher echelons for favours so their “own people” get preferential treatment during their military service.
Such a widespread practice is almost impossible to eradicate without radical measures and a sweeping change of culture.
Nevertheless, the MoD’s current leadership has put on a brave face in trying to deal with the problem, knowing at the same time that the enemy also often comes also from within.
The hope is that things will get better when the MoD merges with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and relocates to a new building by the end of the year. The idea is to streamline the whole military operation by 30%, keeping only capable personnel whilst also shedding party disciples.
The move will significantly increase the prospect of modernising a notoriously slow moving, expensive and recalcitrant establishment.