The non-combat deaths of four soldiers on the Nagorno-Karabakh frontline on November 19-20 are stoking fresh debate about the level of transparency and discipline within the Armenian army. The deaths raise to 15 the number soldiers who have died since July in violent incidents within the ranks.
Four conscripts, aged between 19 and 20 years old, reportedly were killed south of the frontline at around midnight on November 19-20 in what has been described as a scrap among soldiers. An additional four conscripts were wounded. The Ministry of Defense published the names of those killed and wounded in the incident, but no details have been released about it. The ministry, however, does report that it “is almost ruled out” that gunfire by Azerbaijan led to the bloodshed.
A main suspect, a conscript from the same army unit as the victims, is in custody in connection with the deaths, according to Ministry of Defense investigators. The individual, whose name has not been released, could get life imprisonment, or between eight to 15 years in prison, depending on the charges brought against him.
The incident was preceded by the November 19 killing of a 23-year-old sergeant stationed in the northern Armenian province of Gegharkunik. Two people were arrested on November 21 on charges of premeditated murder in connection with that incident.
Of the 15 non-combat deaths registered in the Armenian military between July and November this year, two have been officially classified as suicides.
After the first incident, a July shooting rampage that left five dead, public pressure began to mount on the Ministry of Defense to address the causes of the violence. On a November 19 trip to Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, who formerly served as defense minister, asserted that “we will do everything to be able to save what is the most precious for us -- the lives of our soldiers and officers.”
The ministry has dismissed a number of senior officials, and has pledged to put an end to the violence, but some human rights activists argue that the government needs to do more. Armenia Helsinki Committee Chairman Avetik Ishkhanian contends that the recent deaths might be an indication that the army has become “uncontrollable.”
“After the latest cases, the authorities have finally begun to take some steps, but these steps do not produce results because they are either just pretending to do something, which I do not want to believe, or the situation is already too bad and has become uncontrollable,” Ishkhanian said.
Official statistics show that the number of non-combat deaths in the army has decreased by about 30 percent since 2005, but another human rights activist asserts that the information does not provide the full picture. Artur Sakunts, head of the Vanadzor regional branch of the Armenian Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, cites research done by his non-governmental organization that suggests that as many as 26 soldiers may have died this year in non-combat-related incidents. Another eight were killed in gunfire with Azerbaijani forces on the Karabakh frontline.
The Ministry of Defense, Sakunts claimed, was the original source of information for only 11 of those 34 cases. In the remaining 23 cases, the ministry simply responded to reports already in the public domain, he said. “The Defense Ministry is a closed system and we often do not know a lot about things happening there,” Sakunts said. “If not for public activism, we would not have known about these  cases, either.”
One Defense Ministry official, however, insisted that “the army is as open as our national security allows.”
“Reforms are being implemented and for their full results … time is required,” said Alexander Avetisian, deputy head of the ministry’s Legal Affairs Office, which is working on reform issues.
Criticism of conditions faced by army conscripts intensified in September after the release of a YouTube video that showed an officer beating and humiliating two soldiers. Online campaigns, launched on Facebook against the army and its commanders, demanded the resignation of Defense Minister Seihran Ohanian over the incident. In remarks last month, President Sargsyan alleged that those calling for Ohanian’s resignation “are trying to gain political dividends at the expense of the army.”
But the father of one shooting-incident victim insists that getting the word out about the violence within the army is the only way to stop the killings. “Many are now afraid, are in mourning and still do not realize that we must fight,” said Sargis Sargisian, whose 19-year-old son, Andranik, was killed in Karabakh on July 28. “They have lost their children. What else do they have to lose?”
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.