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Yugoslavia: Recruitment and Service Obligations
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Military Manpower > Recruitment and Service Obligations


Conscription was the principal source of soldiers in Yugoslavia. All male citizens were subject to conscription, regardless of nationality. The ethnic breakdown of YPA conscripts closely approximated the ethnic composition of the population as a whole. Under law twelve months of military service was compulsory. Young men registered for conscription on their seventeenth birthday. Usually inducted in the spring or fall after their nineteenth birthday, young men remained eligible for the draft until age thirty. In 1990 about 2.8 million males in this age-group were fit for military service, out of the total population of 23.5 million. Within this group, about 180,000 reached the normal induction age of nineteen every year. Between 60 and 70 percent of the 180,000 were drafted in their first year of eligibility. By law men between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five could be drafted in the event of war or imminent threat of war. Five million males were eligible for service under this category.

Treatment of conscientious objectors was harsh, and no form of alternative service was available for those who refused. Article 214 of the federal criminal code provided for imprisonment for one to ten years for avoiding military service. In time of war or immediate danger of war, the penalty for refusing to serve ranged from five years in prison to capital punishment.

Even after the reduction in the size of the YPA in the late 1980s, the ratio of soldiers to civilians remained high. By the late 1980s, a new military obligation law had shortened the term of conscription from fifteen to twelve months. Military policymakers did not reduce the term of service willingly, but demographic factors had left no alternative.

Young males working abroad reduced the number of potential conscripts for the YPA, although this problem was less acute in the 1980s than in the 1970s. A limited number of exemptions were based on physical disability or family hardship. Students enrolled in or preparing to enter a university program also received deferments. University graduates were unlikely to serve a full year in the military. Many fulfilled their service requirement by receiving reserve officer commissions upon graduation from a university. Yugoslav sources reported that 20,000 reserve officers were commissioned annually through the TND and university training programs.

Although not ordinarily subject to conscription, women served in the military in several capacities. Beginning in 1983, women were allowed to volunteer for noncombat duty as communications, medical, and clerical personnel. They also served in the reserves and could be drafted into the YPA during war or imminent threat of war, upon a special order of the federal secretary for national defense. A large percentage of TDF personnel were women.

Between 1987 and 1990, financial and demographic factors gradually reduced the number of YPA personnel from 266,000 to 180,000. The economic rationale was apparent: in a time of extreme national economic crisis and lessening international tension, the military was a natural target for budget cutting. At the same time, by 1987 Yugoslavia's population growth was relatively slow at 0.3 to 0.4 percent annually. Because the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo accounted for most of this small increase, maintaining force strength in the YPA would mean inducting higher percentages of this potentially disruptive segment of the population -- a course not favored by Yugoslav military policy makers in the late 1980s.

Noncommissioned officers were generally selected from two sources. Commanders could recommend that soldiers attend an NCO school upon completing basic training. Other qualified youths could apply to an NCO school directly from civilian life. NCO candidates graduated with the rank of sergeant. They signed up for three- to nine-year tours of duty.

Commissioned officers were trained primarily in higher military schools run by the three service branches. Particularly well-qualified NCOs who passed the officer examination could also receive commissions. Civilians with technical specialties such as engineering or medicine could be commissioned directly from civilian life.

Retirement in the YPA was mandatory after forty years of service or at age sixty, except for those in the general officer ranks. Service in the reserves began on completion of active duty. Conscripts and NCOs were obligated until age fifty-five, warrant officers and commissioned officers until age sixty. Women served in the reserves until age fifty. NCOs could enter the reserves as second lieutenants after completing a reserve officer course. During war or imminent threat of war, the federal secretary for national defense could extend reserve service obligations. Promotion and other advancement generally came more slowly in the reserves than in the active service.

Organized civil defense was another form of citizen participation within the national defense establishment. Beginning in the late 1960s, the emphasis on the TDF and local defense drained personnel from the extensive civil defense and urban evacuation program already in existence. Nonetheless, in 1989 civil defense units included about two million adults not included in the YPA, its reserve, or the TDF. The Council for Civil Defense was a joint military and civilian body within the Federal Secretariat for National Defense. It brought representatives of the federal secretary for national defense together with military and government officials from each republic or autonomous province. The former provided assistance and advice to the latter as they formed civil defense organizations at every level of government in the republic or province.

Civil defense originally was directed at planning for the mass evacuation of large cities and defense against nuclear, biological, or chemical attack. It later acquired other major wartime reconstruction and reconstitution responsibilities, such as fire fighting, provision of public health, sanitation, and emergency shelters, evacuation, and civil engineering. Civil defense units also were involved in damage recovery from natural or manmade disasters and other national emergency situations.

Data as of December 1990

Last Updated: December 1990

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Yugoslavia was first published in 1990. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

Yugoslavia Main Page Country Studies Main Page

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