Commentary: Armenia’s Armed Forces under Scrutiny


By Edmond Y. Azadian

During the Karabagh war, the ragtag Armenian armed forces scored a historic victory against overwhelming Azeri forces and liberated a piece of Armenian territory long languishing under Azeri misrule. That victory was achieved because morale was high and the Armenian soldiers were inspired. After a tenuous ceasefire, Armenia and Karabagh were engaged in state building, which included a swift organization of their armed forces, because a no-war, no-peace period had ensued, following that cease-fire, which kept everyone on their toes.

Today we are being reassured that the Armenian armed forces possess the necessary military technology and the man power to defend Armenia against possible Azeri aggression, despite Baku’s military build up through its Petrodollars. We are being further reassured that Azerbaijan would have already attacked Armenia — making good on its threats — had it not been deterred by the might and combat-readiness of the Armenian armed forces.

Despite all these assurances, there are some disquieting incidents in the armed forces, which undermine the morale of the servicemen; these are the alarming number of peacetime deaths in the army. Although the figures vary, nonetheless they are troubling.

It is said that the army reflects the image of the civil society. If that is true, in Armenia’s case there is some healing to be done within the army.

The corruption in the army was well known and bearable until unexplained deaths began to increase. The recruiting officers have always had lucrative positions to give dispensation to any recruit for a price. Additionally, normal furloughs and discharges were allowed through bribes, which certainly found their way into the higher echelons of the army. There is no way to uproot this kind of corruption, because that corruption is committed by the same officers tasked with guaranteeing discipline in the army and keeping the hands of leadership clean. It was a way of life society tolerated, though with a degree of resentment. Now, however, the increasing number of the deaths has alarmed the families and society as a whole. The army brass is under pressure by human rights groups to do some explaining.

Only on October 9, three new draftees died: Vladimir Assatryan, 19, Yourik Nercissian, 19, and Aram Melkonian, 21. All three deaths have been ruled to be suicides.

Valerik Mouradian died in March 2010. According to his mother, he had seen his superior officer stealing gas from the army, and he had reported the incident to his mother over the phone. A few days later, the mother received the tortured body of her son. “What has my son done to be torn apart like that? I wanted to be the last mother whose son is killed in peacetime. I wished he was killed by a Turk to make me proud that my son died defending the borders of our homeland.”

According to unofficial reports, 30 soldiers have been killed this year, and only nine by enemy fire. The public relations person at the Ministry of Defense, Gegham Harutunian, has stated that last year 54 soldiers died and the official figures for the current year will be released at yearend. He assured the public that the number of such incidents is decreasing. But that is no consolation to the mothers who have lost their sons. Those mothers, dressed in black, have demonstrated in front of the presidential palace demanding explanations for those killings.

Some of the new recruits have been sent to psychiatric wards after the brutal treatment they have received from their superiors.

Every time a soldier is killed, news comes out that it is a case of suicide, even before an investigation has begun. Even if the findings are true, the mothers would like to see the responsible parties who have driven their sons to commit suicide to be identified and punished.

In reference to the controversial cases of death in the armed forces of Armenia and civil society’s response, Deputy Minister of Defense Vladimir Gasparyan said during a recent interview on H1 Public TV that some human rights organizations are trying to politicize the issue and have made a habit of criticizing the army. “I suggest to them to refrain from those personal attacks, because they are affecting the army’s combat capacity.” He further accused those critics of being foreign agents.

However, human rights activist Arthur Sakunts, head of the Helsinki Citizen’s Assembly of Vanadzor, has discounted those threats as “means by officials to divert public attention.” The issue has been politicized especially in the hands of the opposition, which never misses the opportunity to criticize the government. This year when Armenia could not make in the first 10 of Eurovision song contest, some opposition papers explained that Armenia lost because it does not have a legitimate government. But the issue has become a political hot potato and it has to be resolved somehow before the public loses complete confidence in its armed forces.

Minister of Defense Seyran Ohanian is a most erudite and articulate government official. He is also a war hero who has lost a leg in the Karabagh conflict. An Azeri newspaper wished that the bullet which hit Ohanian’s leg instead had been aimed at his heart!

Unfortunately some people have publicly called for his resignation, because he has not been able to resolve the issue of peacetime killings. He is the most astute military leader who has put fear in the Azeri hearts and he should be able to bring this painful phenomenon to a close.

Two years ago, the Writers Union of Armenia surprised me in Dzaghgadzor by celebrating my 50 years of literary activity. Ohanian dropped in to award me the Marshal Baghramian Armed Forces Medal. I thought it would be politically incorrect to ask an embarrassing question in that setting. But these killings were so much on my mind that I asked him anyway, “Mr. Minister, why should a young man serve in the armed forces and defend the homeland, when that homeland in return has incidents of hazing, beatings, shipping to psychiatric wards and death sentences?”

He was surprised by the question and he answered: “No commander would like to intimidate and hurt his soldiers. We have taken the issue seriously and we will control the situation.”

Two years later the beatings and killings are shamefully continuing.

Therefore, the question is still valid: why would a young man serve in the army to defend Armenia?