(This Aug 21 story corrects number of helicopters to nine from ten in paragraph 9.)
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia might reintroduce compulsory military service, nine years after abolishing it, to help improve the combat readiness of its army in the Balkans, where tensions occasionally flare, President Aleksandar Vucic said on Tuesday.
The armed forces of Serbia, which emerged as an independent state after the bloody collapse of former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, were fully professionalized in 2011, but remain poorly paid and equipped.
Serbia, which is a candidate for European Union membership, has retained voluntary service and reserve units.
Vucic said Belgrade was considering reintroducing compulsory military service of between three and six months after 2020.
“We are still thinking about that ... It depends on the finances,” he told reporters at the air force base of Batajnica, just outside Belgrade.
Young people who served would have an advantage when seeking jobs in the public sector, Vucic added, without elaborating.
Serbian politicians have repeatedly floated the idea of reintroducing conscription. But many military experts say it would be too costly and that such a short period of service would contribute little to the country’s defense capabilities.
Under its 2018 budget, Serbia allocated $703 million, or 1.39 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) for its 40,000-strong military, up from $693.8 million in 2017.
In recent years Serbia has sought to improve its defense capabilities through a donation of six MIG-29 fighters by Russia, with which it has strong historic and cultural ties, and through the purchase of nine helicopters manufactured by Airbus.
Vucic and Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin have frequently spoken of procuring surplus tanks, attack helicopters and armored personnel carriers from Russia and more jet fighters from Belarus, but such deals have yet to materialize.
In 2006 Serbia, which maintains military neutrality, joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and in 2015 it signed the Individual Partnership Action Plan - the highest level of cooperation for countries not aspiring to join the alliance.
Although it strives for a balance between Moscow and the West, Serbia in 2017 took part in more than 100 joint activities with NATO or its member states, including 13 training drills, seven bilateral activities with the United States and only two with Russia.
Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Gareth Jones
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