A looming shortfall in conscripts for the Armenian army is forcing the country to mull tough choices. A fierce debate has erupted over a plan to remove university enrollment as grounds for an exemption from military service. The proposal reflects both concern over the country's shrinking male population and worries about the growing military strength of the country's long-time archrival, Azerbaijan.
Proposed amendments that are expected to be submitted to parliament this fall would require young men to enroll in the army either immediately after finishing high school or after finishing university. Under current legislation covering the draft, male university students receive a temporary waiver from military service; that waiver becomes a permanent exemption if they are enrolled in a doctorate program.
Teachers and other education specialists worry that the changes could cause serious damage to Armenia's higher education system. The Defense Ministry counters that the army needs the manpower. The recent expansion of Azerbaijan's military capabilities is injecting a sense of urgency into the Armenian debate. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Armenia's demographic situation lies at the heart of the discussion. Birth rates plummeted during the early 1990s, a period when the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh was in its hot phase, and the Armenian economy experienced turmoil and severe energy shortages during the jarring transition from central planning to a market system. Only 39,000 males were born in 1991 -- men who would be eligible to serve in the army as of 2009. That number dropped to 25,697 by 1995, according to the State Statistical Service. More than 10 years later, the birth rate has still not improved; roughly 24,000 males were born in 2008, said Karine Kuyumjian, head of the service's Demography Department.
Those low numbers will be reflected in the number of Armenian conscripts starting military service for at least the next decade, forecasted Kuyumjian.
Although the army's size is a state secret, the problem is such that even Deputy Education Minister Ara Avetisian agrees that the university exemption for military service has to go. "This amendment is unavoidable because military service is one of the most important issues for the state," Avetisian commented.
Avetisian favors males entering the army after high school, at the age of 18, rather than after university. He argues that it would cause the least disruption to their education. Some experts, however, worry that young men inducted into the army immediately after either high school or university would lose interest in ever returning to school.
"Expecting a student who leaves for two years of military service to return after university to study science or to become a good specialist after having forgotten everything [he learned] is senseless," said opposition Heritage Party parliamentarian Anahit Bakhshian, a member of the parliament's Committee for Science, Education, Culture, Youth and Sport. "Neither will boys taken into the army after [high] school want to study after they get out."
Between the two options, however, Bakhshian, who worked for 30 years as a Yerevan school principal and teacher, also believes that military service after high school is preferable. "Pupils take additional classes with private teachers to apply to universities, so proper conditions need to be created in the army for them to take the classes there and apply to university after they return and then study without interruption," Bakhshian said.
Others support the post-high-school option because they believe that it will help fight corruption in higher education. A 2007 survey carried out by the advocacy group Protection of Students' Rights found that 30 percent of about 1,000 male students surveyed at universities nationwide reported that they had only enrolled to avoid military service. Some 65 percent of that number had paid bribes to be enrolled in the universities, the survey found.
"Abolishing the waiver will help beat corruption, clean up universities and have only students who really want to study," commented group member Anahit Simonian, a sociologist who worked on the survey.
But parliamentarians do not unanimously support the idea of post-high-school military service. "The army's effectiveness for combat can't be provided by 18-year-old boys," objected Artur Aghabekian, a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun who served as a deputy defense minister from 2000 to 2007. "Our country really has a demographic problem, but a general draft won't solve it."
Opposition politicians also object to the proposed law; the time has come, these critics argue, for Armenia to have a professional army. "Was it news for them that we have had demographic problems beginning the '90s?" fumed Vahan Shirkhanian a member of ex-President Levon Ter-Petrosian's Armenian National Congress who served as a deputy defense minister under Ter-Petrosian from 1995 to 1998. "They should have thought about creating a professional army long ago."
For the army, going professional raises cost concerns. Maj.-Gen. Kamo Kuchunts, who oversees the draft, recruitment and the training of conscripts, termed the idea "important, but . . . highly expensive." He did not elaborate about projected costs. But he noted that only "about 8,000 contracts" have been signed since Armenia began in 2005 to enlist army sergeants on contract. Removing the need for military conscription by building a professional army "needs both serious resources and a certain amount of time," Kuchunts concluded.
Whether by establishing a professional army or scrapping the university exemption for military service, time is of the essence, noted political analyst Igor Muradian. "Especially now, when Azerbaijan has more money and more resources, we need to find some ways to enlarge the army," he said.
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.