The Armenian defense minister's attempt to crowdfund money for a wounded soldier's expensive medical care has caused consternation in the country, as many Armenians are questioning why the government -- regularly accused of misusing state funds for the personal use of high-ranking officials -- can't pay for the treatment itself.
At issue is the medical care of Albert Dallakyan, a 21-year-old who was accidentally shot in the head by his commanding officer last June. Dallakyan has already undergone three surgeries in Armenia, but his family says he needs another operation, for which doctors in Armenia don't have the top-of-the-line equipment. The family wants to get the surgery in Germany, where it would cost $45,000, but the Armenian government won't pay for the surgery abroad since it technically could be performed in Armenia, albeit at a greater risk of failure.
An Armenian-American activist started a crowdfunding effort to pay for the costs of the surgery in Germany, and the controversy began when Defense Minister Vigen Sargsyan promoted the campaign on his Facebook page. He also pledged to pay 10 percent of the cost himself, along with "a few of his friends," he said in the post. (As of this post's publishing, Sargsyan had in fact contributed $6,015.)
Many didn't see the act as quite so charitable as Sargsyan intended it. "Mr. Minister, do you consider it a normal phenomenon for a sovereign country to organize such a surgery through fundraising," one Facebook commenter asked. "What law-abiding leaders we have, who refuse to circumvent the law! BRAVO," another said, with evident irony. On January 17, several opposition activists took advantage of the public outcry and held a press conference criticizing Sargsyan. The political opposition has piled on, as well.
To many critics, the crowdraising effort recalled another ill-fated effort, in November 2016, to impose a tax of 1,000 drams (about $2) monthly on every citizen to help fund rehabilitation programs for wounded soldiers. That, too, ran up against heavy public backlash.
Sargsyan has done himself no favors by insulting some of the negative commenters on Facebook. “Are the 1,000 drams done with or is this a new way of begging?” one commenter asked. Sarfsyan responded: “You are the only beggar here.” Epress.am also reported that many of the negative comments were erased.
In his less aggressive responses to the Facebook complainers, Sargsyan explained that Armenian law didn't allow for paying for surgery abroad. The problem is that Armenia's top officials, in particular the military, have exhausted the trust of some of their citizens. There have been several corruption scandals, including around the ministry of defense, over the past few years. After the April 2016 heavy fighting along the line of contact with Azerbaijan in Nagorno Karabakh, several defense ministry officials were fired, and others arrested, after it emerged that troops didn't have enough equipment, including fuel and ammunition.
"Soldiers, along with their relatives, publicly stated that we would not have had that many losses during the four-day war had the personnel been provided with appropriate ammunition. It was also discussed how over the course of years relevant MoD officials had become the owners of huge estates, leaving the army with an arms problem," the newspaper Zhoghovurd reported at the time.
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
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