Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenian Army Abuses Go Unchecked

Defence minister pledges to clean up poor practice, but conscripts say corruption and violence are still rife.
By Gegham Vardanian
Arsen Karapetian served in the Armenian army for just over a year before he fell gravely ill and his parents bought him out in exchange for a bribe.

Karapetian recalled the incident which led to his illness. "It was early spring. Early in the morning, we were woken by an alarm call and they marched us out of the base. There was a heavy downpour and we were soaked to the skin within five minutes.”

The soldiers returned to base and hung out their wet uniforms to dry, but their company commander ordered them to get dressed and go for a theory lesson. “We had to put on our wet clothes again and spend an hour and a half in a cold hall," he said.

Karapetian and more than a dozen other soldiers subsequently contracted pneumonia, which in his case developed into pleurisy. Some of them were kept at the base for two weeks before being taken to hospital.

"I grew terribly thin,” he said. “Fluid was pumped from my lungs every day. I was supposed to be demobilised but they kept on postponing it. In the end, my parents gave a bribe of 500 [US] dollars to the ‘right’ officers to speed up my demobilisation."

On returning to civilian life, Arsen was registered as a disabled person.

The military has not taken any action against the officer involved in the incident.

The often appalling treatment meted out to conscript soldiers during their two years of military service is widely known about, but is still off-limits as subject for public debate. According to the Armenian Helsinki Committee, which monitors human rights in the armed forces, "The number of crimes is not getting any less, because the culture of permissiveness and impunity still prevails."

The head of the committee, Avetik Ishkhanian, believes there is an unwritten law that you cannot speak out publicly about abuses in the army.

"Soldiers are afraid of speaking the truth while they are serving,” he said. “They avoid doing so after demobilisation too, and just try to forget the years they spent in the army."

According to Zhanna Aleksanian, a journalist and human rights activist who has extensively researched abuses in the military, "Bribery is commonplace in the army. Beatings and violence meted out by officers are not even discussed. Parents prefer to remain silent on this issue, as they do not want to harm their sons even more."

Armenian defence minister Mikael Harutiunian insisted that the military was tough on disciplining its commissioned officers.

“If officers are guilty and if they have committed a crime, they are punished," he told IWPR. “Many officers have been dismissed and prosecuted. Guilty officers are always punished.”

However, according to the Armenian prosecutor general's office, of the 46 convictions of military officers last year, only one involved mistreatment of a soldier, and three were for taking bribes.

Many experts say that instances of abuse are often covered up.

Lawyer and member of parliament Zaruhi Postanjian said that in cases where soldiers are injured when the officer who ought to be on duty is absent from his post, no legal action is taken.

Before she was elected to parliament, Postanjian worked for many years to protect the rights of young soldiers from the rough rules of the army’s unwritten code. She points to the informal system of “unit overseers” –men who impose order among their comrades and wield enormous power over junior conscripts.

Aleksanian explained how the system worked. "This 'unit overseer’, a soldier or a sergeant, is usually chosen by the officer in command, and he enjoys certain privileges. Commanders manage their units through these overseers – it’s easier for them that way. They can easily call the overseer to order. The soldiers fear and respect him and he decides everything and punishes those who don’t obey."

She noted that the existence of these unofficial enforcers is now taken as a matter of fact. “The unit overseers… are often cited in court cases. That makes it sort of official,” she said.

A conscript can pay off the network of platoon and battalion commanding officers, ‘unit overseers” and their associates known as the “good lads” to win privileges, such as extended leave.

A recently demobilised soldier, Vahe Nikoghosian, said he took leave several times and paid a bribe of around 15 US dollars a day to the officer. After returning from leave, soldiers then have to bring gifts – money, food, cigarettes, and, these days, mobile phone credit cards – to the overseer and his “lads” who made it possible.

Nikoghosian argues that the overseers play a useful role. “Without them, the soldiers would be constantly fighting each other,” he said. “In our unit, the overseer usually resolved arguments fairly, and someone who had been insulted could always appeal to him.”

He said his parents constantly paid out bribes to make his army life easier. “They were always sending me food and clothes. When they came to see me, they’d always invite the officers to a restaurant. On three occasions, they gave me money to pay officers so I could take leave.”

The defence minister says the officer class cannot be wholly blamed if illegal practices occur in the units under their command.

"It depends not just on the officers but also on the quality of soldiers coming into the army, what kind of upbringing they’ve had, where they grew up and which town of village they lived in before joining up,” Harutiunian told IWPR. “The army can’t call up only the well-disciplined and the properly brought-up."

He promised that "we will do all we can to reduce the number of negative incidents in the army. Of course, they won’t disappear 100 per cent, but we have to work even harder."

Paying the right money or having the right contacts can ensure you are assigned to an easier posting.

"Parents pay at least 500 dollars to prevent their sons being sent to a regiment far away on the border," said Postanjian.

The ex-soldier Nikoghosian confirmed this from his own experience, saying, "Before I was drafted, they [parents] found an acquaintance who handed over a bribe of 700 dollars so that I would not be sent me to a regiment posted in a remote location.”

The Helsinki Committee reports that there are “VIP units” based close to the capital Yerevan, which take the sons of government officials, or anyone willing to hand over between 3,000 and 5,000 dollars.

After IWPR contacted Harutiunian, he ordered the head of the defence ministry’s personnel department, General Vardan Avetisian, to provide an interview. But in a telephone conversation, Avetisian categorically refused to be interviewed about corruption or other abuses.

“The army is a closed-in, armoured, invulnerable structure surrounded by an iron curtain,” said Aleksanian. “Of course, hazing may disappear one day but I cannot see any progress towards making that happen."

(Arsen Karapetian and Vahe Nikoghosian are not the real names of the soldiers interviewed for this report.)

Gegham Vardanian is a correspondent with Internews in Yerevan.