Will young men with health problems be forced into the army?

As in most European countries, military service is compulsory here in the Czech Republic. All young men have to spend a year in the army, and those who choose to do civil duty instead have to do it for 18 months. The only way to avoid military service completely is to have a doctor's certificate proving you have serious health problems. However, a bill on reforming the army may mean that even people with incurable illnesses could be forced to do military service. Ian Willoughby prepared this report.

It is no exaggeration to say that every year hundreds of young men avoid military service by obtaining - either legitimately or in many cases illegitimately - a medical certificate saying they have an incurable illness and are not capable of joining the army. Many people - especially from the middle classes - know a doctor who is willing to sign the certificate (known colloquially as the "blue book") and many others simply bribe doctors with either gifts or money to get one. A while back I discussed military service with a student from Slovakia, where the situation is exactly the same.

"I have to do my military service back in Slovakia but I hope I will get the blue book."

What is a blue book?

"You are free from military service."

But why?

"Because I don't want to go to military service - I think it's stupid."

Yes, but what is a blue book exactly? How can you get a blue book?

"A blue book you get when you have some sickness and you cannot be completely cured. You have asthma or high pressure, whatever."

Are you ill?

"Sure (laughs) - but I don't know with what I'm ill for but...we will see."

How do you hope to get this blue book?

"I don't know. We'll see."

Do you know any doctors in Slovakia? Do you have any doctor friends?

"Yes, I do."

And that young man's story is no different from that of thousands of Czechs. Now, however, a bill before the Czech lower house on reforming the army could mean that having an incurable illness would not be a guarantee of avoiding military service. Under the bill, only life-threatening conditions would be enough to keep you out of the army, so just having, say, asthma would not suffice. The aim of the proposed change in the law is clear - to make it a lot harder to avoid military service during the five years or so before the Czech army becomes completely professional.

But not everyone agrees with this idea. Some army figures say they would not be prepared to make exceptions for soldiers, who - for instance - require special diets. They also say soldiers who were incapable of doing some exercises or needed special treatment might be given a hard time by their more able-bodied colleagues.

David Rath, the head of the Czech Medical Chamber says there is simply no difference between a "mere" incurable disease and a life-threatening incurable disease. "Every incurable disease can threaten your life at some moment," says Mr Rath.

The minister of defence, Jaroslav Tvrdik, however has been trying to play down fears that those with serious health problems would have to join the army. And, by the way, Mr Tvrdik himself served as a soldier despite having an incurable illness; he has psoriasis.