A forum last week on the role of the Army of the Republic of Armenia turned into something like a trial, as high-ranking officers reacted to comments and criticisms of experts and average citizens concerned that the army is more like punishment than service.
The forum was sponsored by the National Citizens’ Initiative Research Center (NCI). In his opening remarks, director Raffi Hovannisian stressed that the army is one of the most prominent social concerns in Armenia. Other meetings on the issue will be held periodically, he said.
Army officers put up a defense at an NCI seminar..
An issue of hot debate in the initial meeting was the controversial practice of “dedovshina”. Coming from Russian terminology, the word refers to a condition in which superior officers allow non-commissioned soldiers to be more or less gang leaders of young conscripts. The practice often involves bribery, humiliation and intimidation and has also been the basis of soldier-on-soldier violence.
Colonel Vardan Avetisyan, head of the Educational Department of the Ministry of Defense, said the army is “more stable and organized than any other establishment” and rebutted any claim to the contrary as “destabilizing and inappropriate”.
The colonel denied that any such practice as “dedovshina” takes place in the Armenian army, and said that deaths “happen as a result of accidents”.
Former Minister of Defense Vazgen Manukyan pressed Avetisyan on whether, if the practice of conscript intimidation has ceased, some other method of soldier-to-soldier discipline had replaced it.
Prominent general of the Karabakh war, Arkady Ter-Tadevosyan, stepped in to smooth matters, saying that other post-soviet countries have eliminated “dedovshina” through application of military science.
“It must be under control of the administration of the Defense Ministry,” the general said. “From my own part there was an offer like that. This is the method and way that can replace dedovshina as a man strives for leadership.”
At issue, too, was the question of the military being used for political purposes, the argument that the Army of Armenia is often a means of police enforcement, and a pointed accusation that the Minister of Defense is the republic’s power broker.
“It is no mere chance that in Armenia, the Minister of Defense has been a more influential official the than the president within the last 10 years,” said Chairman of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia Avetik Ishkhanyan.
Ishkhanyan said that his organization has information registering 61 deaths in the army last year and “most of those were murder cases”.
To such statistics, Colonel Avetisyan countered that the number of deaths in the military decreased by 20 percent from 2002 to 2003.
The officer’s numbers were challenged by participating organization “Mothers of Soldiers”, which says a survey it conducted found that 70 percent of society does not believe information released by the Ministry of Defense.