Successful in war, Armenian veterans of the 1988-1994 conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh have been far less successful in securing the benefits they say they deserve from the Armenian government.
Since May, hundreds of Armenia’s estimated 15,000 to 21,000 Karabakh war veterans have been locked in a tug-of-war with the government and parliament for higher pensions and discounts on medical assistance, tuition fees for their children, utility bills and public transportation. But after two meetings with Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian, one with Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian, the submission of a draft law to parliament and weeks of protests and sit-ins in Yerevan’s Liberty Square, matters remain deadlocked.
The issue strikes directly at the heart of Armenia’s post-Soviet identity. The campaign for ethnic Armenians to control Karabakh, predominantly ethnic Armenian territory also claimed by Azerbaijan, was a central plank in the movement of the late 1980s that eventually resulted in Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union.
But if the men who trekked off to fight had been hopeful and enthusiastic then, now they are angry and desperate. “Freedom-fighters’ rights are violated” and “War veterans are neglected,” declared posters displayed at Liberty Square, also the site of Soviet-era Karabakh demonstrations.
Reserve Army Colonel Volodya Avetisian, a 50-year-old father of six and former unit commander during the Karabakh war, started protests in mid-May with a three-day sit-in later joined by hundreds of other veterans. Avetisian receives a 79,000-dram ($192) monthly pension, the highest among his comrades, yet not enough to cover his basic expenses.
“I cannot survive living off my pension, let alone my friends, who receive half the amount I get. . . [S]eeing that, I decided to raise this issue,” he explained. “I have had enough of seeing people neglected who shed their blood, sacrificed their health and youth for the sake of victory.”
Benefits, set by the ministries of defense and social welfare, are modest. Pensions range between 30,000 and 80,000 drams (around $73-$193) per month, an amount insufficient to cover the medical needs of disabled vets. Veterans now are demanding that pensions be raised to 100,000 – 200,000 drams (around $240-$480) per month.
Housing makes up most of the defense ministry’s assistance. In 2013, it will spend 3 billion drams (about $7 million) to solve veterans’ housing problems, said ministry spokesperson Artsrun Hovhannisian Over the past 20 years, some 1,400 veterans have received either apartments or the money to buy one, he said.
Free medical assistance is also provided, but complaints abound. Forty-eight-year-old Vardan Amirjanian, who supports three children on a 23,000-dram ($56) monthly pension, recently had one-third of his lower right leg amputated after gangrene set into an old war injury. It took three months for the defense ministry to refuse his request for help.
“Early treatment would have saved my leg from amputation,” said Amirjanian, who has returned his four merit medals to the ministry in protest.
Passing a law on veteran benefits would improve matters, believes Hovhannisian, since it would require a “statistical enquiry” into the number of legitimate veterans who exist. Bribery and rampant falsification of IDs in the chaotic post-war years distorted data.
But, so far, no such law exists. About a month after the protests began, two pro-government parliamentarians and veterans -- General Manvel Grigorian, the prominent head of the Yerkrapah (Homeland Defender) Union, and Samvel Farmanian, a former spokesperson for President Serzh Sargsyan – submitted a bill that would define the status of Karabakh veterans discharged from the military.
The draft proposes to define as a "Yerkrapah volunteer" anyone who fought for at least three months on Armenia's borders between 1989 and 1994, as well as anyone killed or wounded during the hostilities. Doctors, teachers and reporters who somehow helped the fighters would also classify as "volunteers."
The law passed unanimously in the first reading. Protesting veterans and opposition members, though, argue that the measure is a mere "formality" which does nothing to address social-welfare problems. But bill co-author Farmanian insists that "this is just the first step."
Such benefits will be handled "[l]ater, with the Lord’s mercy, if the state budget has sufficient means, and may God help our country develop economically so much that we can also carry out social reforms,” he said.
That pledge did nothing to reassure sit-in participant Karen Melikbekian. “If they are now referring to God’s mercy, nothing is going to happen," he commented. "We have to fight and achieve what we demand. Otherwise, the cup of our patience is full.”
Draft legislation addressing veterans’ problems has been submitted to Armenia’s legislature twice since 2002, but never passed – “for reasons unknown,” complained Hakob Grigorian, head of the Karabakh War Veterans’ Union.
With a state budget of 1.15 trillion drams (roughly $2.8 billion), the lowest in the South Caucasus, and a long-standing lack of jobs, Armenia claims that it cannot afford to grant veterans more. But veterans don't buy that argument.
“We understand that the country is facing a financial crisis, but it is about smart management -- the amount spent on expensive cars for high-ranking officials would have provided the freedom-fighters with a lifetime of decent living conditions,” charged Ishkhan Sargsian, head of the Shushi-92 Union of Freedom Fighters and War Veterans.
The defense ministry maintains that it does what it can. Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian, a Karabakh native and war veteran who lost a leg to the conflict, meets with “more than 150 to 200 veterans every month, hears them out, tries to help, “ Hovhannisian said, “but the issue has to be solved on a state, legislative level.”
But most veterans do not have high hopes for real change. Fearing a “dangerous tendency” to consign Armenia’s Karabakh veterans “to oblivion,” Avetisian pledges that the campaign for adequate benefits will continue.
“We are still in a state of war and if active hostilities happen to resume, nobody would go to the battlefield having witnessed our misery.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a freelance reporter and editor in Yerevan. Anahit Hayrapetyan is a freelance photojournalist based in Yerevan.