1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Latvia reintroduces compulsory military service

Grzegorz Szymanowski in Riga
April 7, 2023

The Baltic nation feels threatened due to the war in Ukraine. But, as a visit to a skatepark in the capital shows, many young men are not convinced that compulsory military service is the right reaction.

Members of Latvian National Armed Forces during Crystal Arrow 2022 exercise on March 7, 2022 in Adazi, Latvia.
Latvia is a NATO member and members of the Latvian army regularly participate in joint exercisesImage: Paulius Peleckis/Getty Images

Skateboarders are known for their rebellious ways. So it's hardly surprising that the Latvian government's recent decision to reintroduce compulsory military service has not gone down particularly well with the young people at a skatepark in central Riga, the country's capital.

"I'd rather be skateboarding, I want to be a free person, not shooting," a 21-year-old shouted before heading down the ramp.

Although he is unlikely to be drafted yet, military service will soon become mandatory again for all 18 to 27-year-old males in Latvia. Women will be allowed to participate voluntarily. The decision was made by the country's parliament on April 5.

Latvia has not had compulsory military service since 2007 when it was abolished. The reason for the reintroduction is Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year.

"Ukraine is a clear example of how important a morally resilient and well-prepared civilian population is to push back any aggressor," Latvian Defense Minister Inara Murniece said recently. 

Skateboarder Denis Smoteks rides a rail in Riga.
Skateboarder Denis Smoteks is 28 and happy that he is already too old for the new Latvian conscription rules Image: Grzegorz Szymanowski/DW

From 2024 onward, the number of conscripts will increase. The plan is to call up 7,500 Latvians every year, starting in 2028. This will increase the size of the army from over 22,000 soldiers to 50,000, including territorial defense and reserves.

Conscription all round

Riga is following the lead of other Baltic NATO members who feel threatened by Russia. Lithuania reintroduced conscription a few years ago while Estonia never abolished it.

Despite what the skateboarders think, there is also support for the reintroduction of conscription in Latvia.

Ralf, 18, was walking home from a choir rehearsal via the skate park and told DW he thought it was a good idea in principle. "Men are getting weaker and weaker these days, so discipline can help," he said.

When asked what he would do if he were called up, Ralf, who preferred not to give his full name because of the sensitivity of the topic, said, "I think I would go to get stronger and meet new people." For Ralf, politics did not play a role.

How to persuade recruits

The Latvian government is also hoping to convince more young people like Ralf to pursue a career in the military in future.

"It's a challenge," Toms Rostoks, research director at Latvia's National Defense Academy, conceded. "Our professional units have difficulty recruiting soldiers."

He said that many people had signed up for territorial defense since Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year. This results in them being prepared and training, he explained, but it also allowed those who sign up to pursue their own professions.

Far fewer people wanted to become professional soldiers. The alternative to reintroducing conscription would have been to raise salaries for professional soldiers, Rostoks said, but, "that would have been very expensive." 

Latvian choir member Ralf, 18 in Riga.
Latvian choir member Ralf, 18, says he is ready to do military serviceImage: Grzegorz Szymanowski/DW

Additionally it's not clear that raising salaries would have helped with recruitment, Rostoks noted.

As an alternative to compulsory military service, Latvia will also allow civilian service in military institutions. The army hopes to engage even those who are sceptical of military service by presenting this as a chance for them. "We hope that the instructors will be able to convince them that they will acquire new skills and new experiences," Rostoks added.

Public opinion divided

There have not been any national opinion polls conducted on the topic recently. But a study in May 2022 found that 45% of Latvians were in favor of conscription while 42% opposed it, Maris Andzans, a professor at Riga Stradins University, wrote in a Februrary briefing for the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis. According to him, support was lower among younger respondents, with only 34% in the 18-24 age group supportive of the idea.

"Older people are generally more positive towards it than the youth," Rostoks confirmed.

That's also why the government is moving forward carefully and starting with smaller numbers of conscripts, he explained.

In other countries, such as Poland and Germany, the reintroduction of compulsory military service is also being discussed again. Poland suspended compulsory military service in 2010, Germany did so a year later.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius is one of the advocates of bringing compulsory service back and according to polls, the majority of Germans agree with him. Two recent opinion polls suggest that around 60% of the population are for it.

In Latvia, there is also a segment of the population that doesn't like the idea of military service. Some members of the country's Russian-speaking minority are skeptical about what they perceive as the country's pro-Western course. Russian-speakers make up about a quarter of Latvia's 1.9 million-strong population. 

Can Putin's propaganda destabilize Latvia?

For example Maksym, 18, who interrupted his ride on a pedal scooter at the skate park in central Riga to speak to DW. "I definitely don't want to join this army," he said.

In fact, Maksym, who did not want to give his full name either, was planning something completely different, He would like to emigrate to Russia and become a musician in St. Petersburg. He said he liked life there better than in Latvia and the fact that Russia was waging war in Ukraine did not seem to bother him at all.

"Here we are oppressed," he claimed. He said he felt discriminated against because he did not speak the national language. "Latvian somehow doesn't suit me," he said.

Joining the Latvian army to "fight against your own people" is not something he wanted to do. So he was planning to leave.

But not all Russian speakers in Latvia think that way. "If they draft me, so be it, I'll go. I like living here," said another young man who also belongs to Latvia's Russian-speaking minority.