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Armenia: Army Targets Students

Alarm about demographic slump leads to proposed enlistment on army-age students.
By Sara Khojoyan

The Armenian government is working on amendments to legislation which would force more students to do military service, thereby overcoming a potential shortfall in recruits.



The defence and education ministries are drawing up the changes to three existing laws, but have not yet presented them to parliament.



“They foresee removing the right to academic leave during military call-up and setting certain benefits for students [for the duration of their army service],” said Mary Harutiunian, government spokeswoman.



Currently post-graduate students doing a master’s or doctorate are entitled to “academic leave” which exempts them from having to serve in the military so they can concentrate on their studies.



While the final details of the proposed changes are not yet clear, there has already been an outcry against the overall plan.



The government says that it needs to act now to tackle a lack of conscripts for the armed forces. Beginning from this year and over the next decade, conscripts will be young men born in the 1990s, the number of whom is constantly declining, as the year 1991, when the Soviet Union broke up and Armenia became independent, marked a fall in the birth-rate.



According to national statistics, in 1990-92 the birth-rate (for both boys and girls) was 70,000 but it has declined sharply since then to 48,000 in 1995 and 37,000 in 2006, after which it began a modest recovery.



These trends are considered to be a threat to the country in two official documents, the National Security Strategy and the Military Doctrine.



However, some experts say that the answer to Armenia’s military needs is to move away from conscription altogether.



Former deputy defence minister Artur Aghabekian – currently a deputy and head of the Armenian parliament’s committee on defence, internal affairs and national security – told IWPR, “There is really a demographic problem in our country but I personally believe that general conscription is not the solution.”



Aghabekian said it had been a mistake to close military departments in colleges and universities, which train students in army-related subjects during their studies and which he said were an important institution for preparing youngster for careers in the armed forces.



Aghabekian said that Armenia needed to form a professional army by giving out temporary contracts to professional soldiers.



The military currently do have units staffed by soldiers on contracts, amongst them Armenia’s international peacekeeping battalion, but there are no plans to expand this practice.



Another former deputy defence minister Vahan Shirkhanian also believes the army needs to move away from full reliance on conscription, particularly since emigration was becoming a big problem. “From 2001 to 2006, 27,000 school-children left Armenia and, this year, from January to August alone, 83,000 people left Armenia. People who leave the country take their sons with them,” he said.



“So just imagine how many [potential recruits] we are losing every day, which is why our eyes are always turned to universities, to call up 18-year-olds. But that’s not how the problem gets solved.



“This plan could cause a lot of problems for education and science and also hurt the relationship between the public and the army. All the more so when problem number one for our military security is the restoration of trust between army and the public.”



Research shows that young men do not want to serve in the army and parents are reluctant to send their children there because they consider it corrupt.



Surveys carried out by the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International in 2002 and 2006 reveal that attitudes towards the army had not changed in those four years. In the first poll, 46.6 per cent of those surveyed said they considered the army extremely corrupt, four years later the figure was 40.4 per cent. The corresponding numbers of people who said the army was merely corrupt were 16 and 25.1 per cent.



A major reason for public distrust of the army is the high death-rate amongst conscripts, with frequent reports of young men dying in unexplained circumstances.



Armenia’s human rights ombudsman Armen Harutyunian has sent an official letter to the head of the government administration Davit Sargsian, saying that Armenian law was currently in line with the Europe-wide Bologna Declaration on higher education and that the rights of students to continuous study risked being abused under the new legislation.



The chairman of parliament’s education committee Armen Ashotian said that every effort should be made to soften the impact of the new law on students – through new benefits paid to them while they serve – but insisted it was necessary.



“We all understand that the age of conscription is approaching the ‘demographic pit’, that starts with the years 1990-1992 ,” said Ashotian. “Men born at that time should soon be called up into the army and everyone understands that the most important task is increasing the efficiency of the army.”



But many young people are opposed to the proposed changes.



Twenty-six-year-old Alexander Chilingirian, who has gained a doctorate in physics, said that he would never have completed his studies if he had to serve in the army.



“The army breaks a person,” said Chilingiran. “And it doesn’t matter if you join the army at 18 and come out at 20 or if you join at 21 and come out at 23, you don’t have the will to carry anything on. In two years in the army the brain doesn’t just switch off, it degrades.”



Sixteen-year-old Mikael Sandrosian, a second-year geology and metallurgy student in Yerevan, takes a similar view.



“If I go into the army that it will definitely have a bad effect on my studies,” he said. “In the first place if I join up, I will forget everything I know in two years and when I return it will be hard and I won’t have the will to carry on learning.”



Government spokesperson Mary Harutiunian said that the draft changes were now being studied by experts, then discussed in government before being presented to parliament. She said there was no time-frame for their approval.



She said Prime Minister Tigran Sargsian had promised wide discussion of the issue to ensure that the eventual changes had public support.



Sara Khojoian is a correspondent with Armenianow.com in Yerevan.
 

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