A new program is promoting the closer integration of Armenia’s military and society. The initiative is raising concerns among some observers that the country, already one of the most heavily militarized in the world, is giving the army too much influence over the shaping of its future.
Defense Minister Vigen Sargsian launched the program, known as the “Nation Army Concept,” in October. The concept, as it has been articulated thus far, is vague but seemingly far-reaching: it appears to potentially allow for the total mobilization of society in the service of national security. “All the governmental bodies, civilians and anybody else must correctly carry out their role in the defense of the country,” Sargsian said in rolling out the program.
Sargsian also has alluded to the military assuming a greater role in Armenia’s economic sphere. The army should “not just consume, but also become a leader in the development of economic and social life,” he said, adding that the army can be “a platform for innovation, become a bridge of sorts linking science and industry.”
While specifics on the program are scarce, the rhetoric surrounding it is making some Armenians uneasy. At a conference in April devoted to the program, Armenia’s Minister of Education and Science, Levon Mkrtchian, told the participants: “Military science teachers should teach children to love weapons and not to fear them. Weapons must be loved, cherished, taken care of, and not be just quickly assembled,” he said. “We live in an area where everyone is a potential soldier, and this naturally affects the educational system; this concept should be the primary task of schools.”
This kind of talk worries civil rights activists. The Nation-Army Concept is part of a trend in Armenia in which “the state is raising not a citizen, but a soldier,” said Edgar Khachatryan, head of the NGO Peace Dialogue. “And in the future, this citizen would not stand up for his or her rights, but would carry out orders. ... This is the shortest way to establishing a military dictatorship, and I see things trending in that direction,” Khachatryan told EurasiaNet.org.
Many Armenians wonder if the country has not already too tightly integrated the military and society. Armenia is the third-most-militarized country in the world, after Israel and Singapore, according to a study by the Bonn International Center for Conversion, which attempts to measure “the relative weight and importance of a country’s military apparatus in relation to its society as a whole.”
Sargsian’s own appointment as defense minister was controversial in Armenia, ironically, because he was a civilian rather than a military veteran, although civilian defense ministers are standard in much of the world.
The military’s leading role in the country has become increasingly controversial. Corruption scandals led to several senior military officials being fired last year. A month after the Army Nation Concept was announced, a bill was introduced in parliament that would tax citizens 1,000 drams (about $2.30) per month to compensate soldiers killed or wounded in action. The legislation sparked strong criticism among citizens who complained that the government was squeezing its impoverished population while senior officers get rich. The bill passed easily, however, on an 84-3 vote.
Human rights activists voice concerns that further boosting of the army’s role in society will make the military even more unaccountable. “The ‘Nation Army Concept’ is unacceptable as long as we have a state,” said rights activist Zara Hovhannisian. “That is, the public should be mobilized around civilian institutions, and the army, as a structure safeguarding and maintaining state sovereignty, is just one of the components.”
Sargsian vigorously downplays criticism, contending that the critics have it all wrong. “The Nation Army is a society that acts as one whole. That does not mean the militarization of society, or the state. On the contrary, it means democratization of the army, its full integration into society, economy, culture, education, science, ecology and sports,” he said in an address to parliament. “This means using what has been created by the army for the whole society and state, and building up the armed forces with all the achievements of civilian life.”
The underlying motivation for the concept seems to be the long-standing frozen conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. An arms race, of sorts, has been taking place in the past few years, and tension has risen markedly along the line of contact, underscored by the brief resumption of all-out warfare in April 2016. The program, according to some experts, can put Armenia in better position to keep up strategic pace with Azerbaijan.
“Given the current arms race in the region and Armenia’s modest capacities … this is not just a concept or a doctrine, but is above all a value system that will engage not just those whose job is the country’s security, but also the society and the diaspora,” said Sergey Minasyan, deputy director of the Caucasus Institute think tank.
So far the government has introduced a handful of specific initiatives related to the concept. One of them, “I Have the Honor,” offers military training to university students and then commissions them as reserve officers when they graduate. Another, called “I Am,” provides for a new conscription program: instead of the standard two-year term, young men could serve for three years, with seven months of leave during that time, but the service would be in potential combat zones at the border with Azerbaijan, or on the line of contact in Karabakh. At the end, the soldier would get a bonus of five million drams (about $10,500) which could be used for tuition expenses, buying a home, or setting up a small business.
The government has cast the programs as ways to address problems with corruption in the conscription process, in which Armenians from wealthier families tend to get out of military service by paying a bribe. “These bills should be considered first of all from the point of view of giving a person an opportunity, which substantially reduces corruption risks connected with avoiding military service,” Defense Ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhannisian told EurasiaNet.org.
But skeptics see the target more as Armenia’s poor, whose only means of getting out of conscription is to emigrate. “This is just a project aimed at getting poor people to serve in the military [and not leave the country],” said Artur Sakunts, a rights activist and head of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly. “The children of oligarchs will again avoid service in the army, corruption will not cease, [and] generals will continue to grow rich at the expense of the army.”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a freelance reporter and editor in Yerevan.