A free speech debate is flaring in Armenia, touched off by an official investigation into a collection of short stories that casts the Armenian army in unflattering light.
Civil rights activists say the incident reflects the military establishment’s intolerance of any form of criticism, a situation that poses obvious problems from the democratization process. Military authorities accuse the work’s 24-year-old author Hovhannes Ishkhanian of defaming the army in three of the 16 stories contained in the 178-page collection, titled Demob Day. The controversy has prompted several Yerevan bookstores to yank the collection from their shelves.
Military police opened the case, initially alleging that Ishkhanian was disseminating pornography. If convicted on such a charge, Ishkhanian would face a fine ranging from 6,400 to 12,800 drams ($16,357-$32,714), or be jailed for up to two years. The case has since been transferred to civilian jurisdiction, overseen by the Yerevan police department. Law-enforcement officials declined to comment to EurasiaNet.org about the matter, other than to say that an investigation is ongoing.
Anahit Yesaian, an attorney for the military police, says that the government’s chief complaint with the book is its “very bad language, which defames the military.”
“It is offensive for everyone; not only for the army, but, in general, for Armenian mothers, boys that have served in the army, and so on,” Yesaian claimed.
Defense Ministry representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
The army-related stories in the collection are based in part on Ishkhanian’s own two years of military service. Reading them, it’s easy to understand why career officers, as well as members of Armenia’s military establishment, are chagrined. One story features a corrupt deputy commander in charge of policy who, in hope of finding gold, grabs a soldier’s throat, and kills him. “[H]e examined the throat and did not find what he was looking for inside it, so he spat at me and left,” the soldier posthumously tells readers.
In another story, titled Military March, Ishkhanian describes the reaction of a newly drafted soldier. “I wake up every morning hearing that someone is crying. But when I saw his face, I realized that it is me,” the fictional soldier recounts. “I was wondering why I was crying and the answer was that because I serve in the army.”
In a country that is bordered by two traditional enemies – Turkey and Azerbaijan – the military and the church are seen as two key pillars of Armenian statehood. Military leaders have tended to treat criticism of the armed forces as treasonous behavior. Sensitivity about the army’s image has increased of late amid controversy about non-combat deaths, including suicides, in the ranks. Official statistics show that only 32 of the 228 conscripts who died between 2007 and 2011 were killed as a result of ceasefire violations on the frontline with Azerbaijan.
The high percentage of non-combat deaths has focused public attention of the quality of life for conscripts, and, in some cases, has raised questions about the professionalism of the officer corps.
The taboo on public criticism of the army broke down after the 2010 posting of a video on YouTube that documented an army officer’s brutal treatment of conscripts. The ensuing public outcry led to the officer’s dismissal, and assurances from the Defense Ministry that it would not tolerate such behavior. Subsequently, Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian held periodic meetings with civil and human rights activists, and with the parents of soldiers who died in non-combat incidents.
Despite such efforts, Ohanian’s patience for public debate of military issues goes only so far. In October 2011, public television quoted Ohanian as saying that, although he “can understand and accept the constructive public criticism of the army after the extraordinary incidents,” he nonetheless “considers the non-stop deliberate manipulations of army issues by certain groups to be unacceptable.”
“From now on, the Defense Ministry will be most strict with those defaming our army,” he asserted.
Soon after Ohanian made those statements, Defense Ministry representatives heaped a torrent criticism on the main human rights organization involved in highlighting army abuse of conscripts and non-combat deaths, the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly’s Vanadzor office, and its director, Artur Sakunts.
In media interviews, then Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Gasparian, now Armenia’s chief of police, called Sakunts “a traitor with no motherland,” and the parents of soldiers who died from physical abuse “impertinent” for protesting in front of the central government building in Yerevan each Thursday.
Pro-government MPs also joined in. On December 6, an MP for the governing Republican Party of Armenia, Karen Avagian, called Sakunts “a spy and a traitor” whom “we’d love to wrap up and send to the Azerbaijanis or Turks as a gift.”
Sakunts, who counters that such statements “proved once again that the [Defense Ministry’s] attempts at dialogue were purely cosmetic,” has filed a defamation suit against Gasparian and demanded a public apology be made to the protesters. No lawsuit has been filed against Avagian
The crackdown on Demob Days, launched in February, is an outgrowth of Ohanian’s October statement, according to Ishkhanian. The government “wants to restore ‘the sacred veil’ . . . over army issues,” charged Ishkhanian.
Mikael Danielian, president of the Helsinki Association, another human rights organization, agrees that the military is taking these actions to restore the taboo against criticism of its policies. Danielian adds that such steps ultimately could backfire. “If by such methods of spreading fear, the taboo is re-imposed and intolerance is shown toward public pressure, the death toll [in the army] will grow again,” Danielian argued.
One military expert who serves on the Defense Ministry’s Public Council, a consultative body, maintains that preserving the army’s prestige is of paramount importance to national security. Given the lack of a permanent peace deal with Azerbaijan, “losing the military’s exalted image would mean losing our defense” against Armenia’s main enemy, claimed David Jamalian.
“Even in freedom of speech and criticism, there is a red line that shouldn’t be crossed,” he said.
Editor’s note: Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.