No War for the Rich: Army Bill Sparks Controversy in Armenia

Proposal would see soldiers allowed to make a hefty payment to the state so as to drastically reduce the time they serve.

No War for the Rich: Army Bill Sparks Controversy in Armenia

Proposal would see soldiers allowed to make a hefty payment to the state so as to drastically reduce the time they serve.

Armenian servicemen in frontline trenches separating the Armenian-controlled territory from the Azerbaijani forces in Nagorny Karabakh, pictured in May 2016. A draft law proposed to the possibility for conscripts to pay off part of the mandatory military service, rising concerns about bringing to the military ranks the country’s gap between rich and poor.
Armenian servicemen in frontline trenches separating the Armenian-controlled territory from the Azerbaijani forces in Nagorny Karabakh, pictured in May 2016. A draft law proposed to the possibility for conscripts to pay off part of the mandatory military service, rising concerns about bringing to the military ranks the country’s gap between rich and poor. © Monica Ellena
Tuesday, 8 November, 2022

Armenia's ministry of defence has drafted a new bill under which conscripts could buy their way out of most of their mandatory military service, raising concerns about further widening the country’s gap between rich and poor.

The draft indicates that conscripts could serve for four and-a-half months instead of mandatory two years by paying 24 million drams (60,500 US dollars) to the state budget. 

The draft law may still be amended once it reaches the national assembly, but the public discussion prompted a heated debate. Citizens and rights’ groups warned that it risked widening social divides.

“The bill will weaken [our] defence system and cause class stratification into the privileged and the poor where the latter must protect the property of the privileged at the cost of their lives,” Avetik Ishkhanyan, chairman of the Helsinki Committee of Armenia, told IWPR, adding that Armenia’s state of war required everyone to serve, with no distinction.

The war with Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh, the Armenian-populated mountainous region internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, has kept Armenia in combat-ready mode for most of country’s independent history. The latest flare-up in mid-September claimed over 100 lives in two days.

DISCRIMINATORY BILL

Five human rights groups issued a joint statement calling the provision unconstitutional, and appealed to the ministry of defence to remove it.

“We believe that the given legal regulation proposed by the draft law is unlawful in accordance with Articles 28 and 29 of the Constitution, in terms of the principles of universal equality before the law and the prohibition of discrimination,” the statement read. It claimed that the bill was discriminatory and it would inevitably erode social justice in the country.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stressed that “consistent reforms of the armed forces should remain a government priority”. Noting that a professional army was critical for Armenia, he said that the draft law was a stepping stone in that direction. The amount paid by one conscript will cover a contract soldier’s monthly wage of 400,000 drams (about 100 dollars) for five years.

Others dispute this logic.

Military expert Karen Hovhannisyan argued that such approach turned “the army into a commodity, with a price tag: those who can afford it, buy it”.

It would also impact the very quality of the army itself, he continued.

“In four and-a-half months it is impossible to give conscripts the combat skills and military knowledge that are required in the time of war,” he said. “Also, it introduces social segregation on a critical issue at the state level: those who have money may not serve, and those who have no money will be forced to serve. This will lead to serious social confrontation.”

Security policy expert Areg Kochinyan described the possibility of funding the army in this way as “simply absurd”.

“A professional army requires completely different sums, with plenty of zeros,” he continued, adding that the impact on morale would also be catastrophic.

“It is difficult to imagine that people who have to continue their military service after four and-a-half months, for the sake of what would they serve for the next year and a half? Because they have no money and they are forced to serve?” Kochinyan asled. “This approach to some extent seems to turn into a poll tax: if you want your son not to be killed, pay.”

RICH V POOR

Parents know that their sons are mandated to serve in the army, but they see the bill as creating two classes of citizens.

“My son is 17 years old, but I am already worried about him,” Yerevan resident Anna Simonyan told IWPR. “We are not rich. Why does my son, from a disadvantaged family, have to serve in the army and the son of a rich neighbour will be exempt? This is our common homeland.”

As fighting along the border with Azerbaijan erupted regularly, she argued that such social discrimination was “a very bad idea.”

Kochinyan also noted a political factor, stressing that the current government came to power on a ticket to fight corruption and support the poor.

“With this bill, the ruling party acts in favour of the rich, against the general population. How moral is it to further deepen the gap in Armenia’s society?” he concluded.

During a cabinet meeting in early September, Pashinyan hinted that wealthy families have been buying their sons’ exemption from the service.

“Let's admit that at some point, only the representatives of socially disadvantaged groups served in the army and carried out military duty, sorry,” he said.

Wealthy individuals or government officials are believed to shield their sons from dangerous assignments, when they serve at all, while soldiers without influential connections or the ability to pay bribes largely bear the brunt of combat.

“Instead of eradicating it and fighting against illegality, the government gives it a force of law, makes it legal,” Ishkhanyan said. “In countries like ours, everyone should serve on the frontline, including government officials’ children. People see that the children of those in high positions, with high-ranking relatives or with money, do not serve in the army. This is clearly visible.”

The government announced plans to increase its defence budget by 161,716 billion drams (400 million dollars) in 2023, a year-on-year hike of 47 per cent.  The proposal indicates five main areas, including healthcare, training, demining, international military cooperation and support programmes.

The plan has been largely welcomed. Experts consider a higher budget necessary to upgrade Armenia’s defence capability, but also called for a related increase in the control over the funds’ management.

Ishkhanyan said that the proposal for more spending was further proof that the bill over the military service was “inadequate”.

“If such an increase is actually planned, there will funds that can be invested [in developing a professional army],” he continued. “Therefore, this draft law is completely meaningless."

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

Armenia
Army, Life, Law reform
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