One of the greatest challenges Serbian defence system currently faces is personnel outflow. Latest research conducted by Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP) has indicated that Serbian army has problems in retaining staff due to a mix of reasons.
Staffing problems are not characteristic of the Serbian defense system only. Countries in the Western Balkans, as well as some of the larger armed forces such as German or British, also face this challenge. However, approach to the problem is different. Whereas countries in the region and broader talk about the problem publicly, Serbian Ministry of Defence (MoD) pushes the topic under the rug, using the military secret excuse. Namely, all documents and analyses on personnel management have been marked confidential in 2016. Considering that some of these data were published before, question arises whether personnel documents are justifiably confidential or MoD tries to cover something up. Also, if we take a look at other countries, we will notice that personnel statistics is not secret in most cases. Great Britain for example, publishes quarterly reports of intake and outflow of personnel.
No need to go further than the Western Balkan region. For instance, North Macedonia has recognized the challenge of personnel outflow in the past five years, published precise numbers and specified the measures it plans to undertake in order to tackle this challenge. In Bosnia and Herzegovina personnel rights were discussed during a parliamentary committee session with MoD representatives present. Montenegro has highlighted personnel management challenges and improvement plans in its strategic documents as well. So why does Serbian MoD keep this information out of public sight? There is no sound explanation on how aggregated data on personnel who leave or join the defense system, or even more so, total number of employees, can harm national security or defense interests. Considering that Serbia’s neighbors openly discuss defence personnel management, there is a reasonable doubt whether confidentiality is used to conceal problems in this area.
Since MoD refuses to publish information about the outflow, as well as total number of employees, it is challenging to measure the range of the problem in Serbia. Nevertheless, by assessing the available information published in Official Military Gazette an upward trend of younger officers leaving the service can be noticed in the preceding period. There are several intertwined problems which push Serbian armed forces (SAF) members out of the system. Low pay, unpredictable career path and negative selection of personnel through promotion, as well as being burdened with tasks out of the job description are among top reasons for leaving the service.
These problems boost one another and form a vicious circle where poor working conditions and malpractices produce additional corruptive practices and damage integrity of individuals, as well as the entire defence system. Due to low pay military staff have to find additional jobs, very often on the informal market. Being stuck for too long in a certain rank pressures officers to pull some strings in order to advance or to leave the system disappointed. Finally, low manning burdens the serving personnel, robs them of time for performing their own tasks and training, and consequently, harms the operational and functional capabilities of the armed forces. Downgraded integrity lowers the trust in the system, hence another concerning trend appears – SAF members rather choose to terminate the service than to try and resolve the problem through available complaint mechanisms.
Hiding the personnel problem under the veil of confidentiality is only deepening it. Not only that personnel numbers and strategic documents should be published, but the MoD should try to create a transparent and inclusive space for discussing the existing problems. Engaging different actors of civilian control, such as media, National Assembly, independent institutions, civil society and academia can contribute to MoD’s efforts in tackling the problem. Open discussion can also strengthen integrity and accountability of the MoD and SAF and finally, increase trust and encourage people to resolve the problems within the system rather than finding alternative careers elsewhere on the market.