Turkmenistan is trying to encourage graduates to carry out their national service by shortening the period they need to serve in the forces from 18 months to a year.
However, some NBCentralAsia analysts say graduates would continue to evade conscription until conditions in the armed forces improved substantially and bullying - known as “hazing” - was eliminated.
President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov changed the law on military duty and military service on March 3 at a session of the country’s Security Council. The changes are due to come into effect on April 1.
While the president cut the time that people with higher education degrees have to serve in the forces, he did not do the same for ordinary draftees.
They will continue to have to serve in the military for a period of two years.
The president also tasked the defence ministry with drawing up a new military strategy designed to suit the Central Asian state’s changing security needs.
Other than, perhaps, terrorism, Turkmenistan currently faces no credible military threat.
The strategy will encompass reducing overall numbers in the armed forces, replacing the outdated Soviet-era weaponry with newer systems and improving soldiers’ conditions.
National service in the army is currently obligatory in Turkmenistan and applies to all citizens between the ages of 18 and 30. Volunteers can enter the armed forces from the age of 17 onwards.
However, some youngsters in Turkmenistan bribe their way out of military service, but far more evade enlistment by studying abroad.
A source in the Turkmen defence ministry told NBCentralAsia the decision to shorten graduates’ terms of service and cut overall numbers in the military was prudent.
“Why would a state with a population of only five million and permanently neutral status need such an army?” he asked.
“A couple of tens of thousands of well-prepared and modern-equipped soldiers would be enough; a large army is a burden on the budget.”
Turkmenistan’s armed forces now have a total strength of about 100,000.
The state takes careful note of young Turkmen who leave the country for abroad, insisting they serve their set terms alongside everyone else on return.
Many youngsters studying abroad do not return home precisely because they do not want to enlist, or pay the fines.
One reserve officer in the Turkmen army told NBCentralAsia it was clear the president wanted to attract some of these young people back by curtailing their conscription.
“Young lads don’t return to Turkmenistan to serve because the conditions of service are so bad, while hazing in the military thrives and goes unpunished,” he explained.
“Our boys get university diplomas abroad, find jobs and stay there. Why would they want to waste time and wreck their health in the army?”
Youngsters polled by NBCentralAsia seemed divided in their reaction to the president’s initiatives.
One second-year student, aged 20, from the town of Mary, now studying in a university in Kyrgyzstan, was cheered by the news.
“I didn’t want to go back to Turkmenistan after graduation and lose a year-and-a-half in military service,” he said.
“But this news has made me think, so most likely I will in fact return and serve.”
Other Turkmen sounded more doubtful, saying they still did not plan to go back.
“I am not going to serve one year, let alone a year-and-a-half or two years,” one student studying abroad insisted.
“My neighbour was beaten to death by the senior conscripts in the army and I don’t want to share his fate.
“My parents will not let me do it anyway; they will pay up.”
The student was referring to the bribes recruits can pay to duck their service in the army.
Tajigul Begmedova, chair of the Turkmen Helsinki Fund for Human Rights, which, amongst other things, monitors human rights violations among the military, said it would take more than a slight cut in the length of service to induce graduates to go into the army.
The army needed “fundamental reform”, said Begmedova, starting with “eradicating hazing in the military”.
Begmedova maintained that a neutral state like Turkmenistan would be better off abolishing conscription and switching over to a purely professional and contractual armed service in the long run.
(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service is resuming, covering only Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for the moment.)