After the deaths of seven soldiers this summer in non-combat-related shootings, public pressure for reform is coming to bear on one of Armenia’s most closed institutions -- its armed forces.
Reports of physical abuse and suicides in the Armenian army are not new. Such incidents are in part connected to a tradition of hazing, known as dedovshchina, which was practiced in the Soviet Army before Armenia regained independence in 1991. But Armenia’s army in the past month-and-a-half has undergone a greater number of non-combat-related shooting deaths than at any time since the Soviet Union’s collapse. The shootings have focused public attention on the military abuse issue.
On July 28, a conscript stationed in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh shot dead two lieutenants and three privates before killing himself. Less than a month later, on August 17, the process repeated itself when 26-year-old Junior Sergeant Haroutiun Vardanian shot dead a fellow non-commissioned officer, 44-year-old Junior Sergeant Arsen Chobanian. Vardanian was arrested and charged with premeditated murder.
The July incident was preceded by the alleged suicide of a 30-year-old lieutenant, Artak Nazarian, in northeast Armenia -- a death that relatives claim was the result of physical abuse.
In connection with the July 28 shooting, Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian fired eight officers, demoted 10 commanders and department heads and issued formal warnings to another 20 officers.
The Armenian army, a pillar of the Armenian ruling establishment, in the past has largely escaped heated general public criticism about physical abuse and non-combat deaths. Criticizing the army can often be portrayed as questioning Armenia’s own statehood – a portrayal fueled by longstanding tensions with the neighboring states of Turkey and Azerbaijan, which media often present as bent on Armenia’s destruction.
In the past, the parents, relatives and friends of soldiers who died due to suspected abuse have borne the onus for organizing protests and calling attention to the problem. Some of these parents now say that they sense a certain change in the military’s attitude on the abuse issue.
Under the supervision of Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian, a public oversight body comprising human rights activists, soldiers’ rights advocates, doctors and psychologists has been established to monitor treatment of soldiers. “We felt that he wants to change something,” commented Robert Mirzoian, whose 21-year-old son, Gegham Sergoian, was killed by his commanding officer in 2007. “It is very difficult, but he tries.”
Some human rights activists question whether such measures are enough. The military has lacked the will to forcefully address the problem, they say. In most non-combat army deaths, “those responsible … are not prosecuted, and often weaker [people in the chain of command] become scapegoats, innocent people are convicted, cases are covered up, and all this generates new crimes,” claimed activist Avetik Ishkhanian, president of the Helsinki Committee, a Yerevan-based human rights watchdog group.
Defense Minister Ohanian counters that a seven-year reform program, launched in 2008, is addressing the problem head-on. The average number of soldiers killed each year in non-combat situations, or who committed suicide, has decreased significantly in recent years, in comparison to figures for the period 1998-2005.
“Of course, there is still a lot to be done, but the number of death cases decreases with each passing year,” Ohanian said in a written response to questions posed by EurasiaNet.org. “Criminal cases are filed for each … case, with grave consequences. The guilty are punished in accordance with their crimes.” Punishments include arrests and discharges.
Apart from the deaths this summer, the army has not yet released statistics on non-combat deaths for this year. For 2009, the United States Department of State’s annual human rights report recorded 42 non-combat deaths in Armenia’s armed forces; 11 of which were reported suicides.
The minister’s words provide little comfort to the families of those soldiers killed. “I sent my child to defend his motherland. If my son died in combat, I wouldn’t be suffering so much. But he was simply executed, and no one even knows why,” said Sargis Sarkisian, the father of one of the July 28 victims, 19-year-old Private Andranik Sarkisian.
The perpetrator, 21-year-old Private Karo Aivazian, was inducted into the army despite an alleged criminal record in the United States that reportedly prompted his deportation to Armenia in 2009, a relative says.
Aivazian’s grandfather, Jivan Mikayelian, claims that enlistment officers demanded payment to prevent Aivazian’s induction into the army; the youngster’s criminal record was no deterrent. “They shouldn’t have taken [him] into the army. I showed all his papers at the military registration and enlistment office, … told them that he had been convicted for weapons theft, escaped from prison, was put into a mental health institution,” recounted Mikayelian. “They asked me for $4,000 [to drop Aivazian from the registration roster]. I didn’t have it, so they took him.” (Aivazian’s criminal record in the United States could not be independently verified).
Defense Ministry officials declined to discuss Aivazian’s case with EurasiaNet.org; an investigation into the July 28 shooting incident is ongoing.
Another human rights activist, Mikayel Danielian, president of the Helsinki Association, argues that corruption should be as much a target for reform as physical abuse of conscripts. “The army is completely drenched in corruption; this very case is a vivid example,” Danielian said in reference to Aivazian.
“Someone with such a criminal record shouldn’t have been conscripted into the army, but since some other boys were freed from army service in exchange for a bribe, they had to secure a headcount, so they took him into the army.”
While opposition politicians have called for the resignation of both Defense Minister Ohanian and President Serzh Sargsyan (who served as defense minister from 1993 to 1995) over the deaths, pro-government politicians continue to stoutly defend the military establishment.
In comments to EurasiaNet.org, the leader of the governing Republican Party of Armenia’s parliamentary faction called on journalists and human rights activists to refrain from “raising unnecessary hysteria and slandering the Armenian army.” While the violence is “certainly regrettable” and “terrible,” it is not “common,” asserted Galust Sahakian. “It’s wrong to cast stones at our army and sow seeds of distrust towards it. … This is a question of our security.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.