Sunday, June 17, 2012

You're In the Army Now

From the parade marking the 20th anniversary of the Armenian army

Lately I have noticed that several guys I always see around Gyumri are missing and I realize that they must have been called up for their army service.  All men in Armenia are required to serve two years in the army although - as with everything else - there are ways around it, but I will get to that. From an early age, they are prepared for it, and phys ed classes in schools include military exercises for boys. 

Fellow PCVs in a village military training classroom
Until last year, the draft age was 18 although deferral was available if you were pursuing a university degree.  Last year, the deferral was eliminated  - although those already benefiting kept their deferral - and the draft age was raised to 19. The increase in the draft age was because elimination of the university deferral and a change in the education system requiring 12 years of pre-university schooling instead of 10 had wiped out much of the starting classes in universities.  There are two entry periods - May and November - but both slide into the following month.  I had thought that everyone reported on the same day, but someone told me recently that it would be impossible: "We only have one bus to take them!"

So last month and this month, guys from all over the country have been heading out to various points in Armenia and Nagorno Karabagh to do their service.  In the pecking order of where your army placement is, the rankings go from not going in at all (the best) to Nagorno Karabagh (the worst).

Karabagh is the area that Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting over for ages. Twice the countries have gone to war over the area - during the short period between the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and again from 1991 until a cease-fire in 1994.  While peace talks have been held since then to resolve the matter, Karabagh has declared itself an independent republic which is not recognized by Azerbaijan (and, interestingly, not formally by Armenia).  Despite the cease-fire, sporadic gunfire still occurs and soldiers have died there.

Other undesirable postings are along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  Recently (during Hilary Clinton's visit to the region) there was some fighting in the northeastern part of Armenia with several deaths on both sides. The more desirable posts are in Yerevan, Gyumri, Vanadzor and other places well away from any gunfire.  

As I wrote in an earlier post, there are ways of getting a better placement in the army - specifically by bribing someone in charge.  Essentially, the more you can pay, the farther you will be from the Azerbaijan border.  While this system has existed for years, a recent change is interesting.  Perhaps as a measure to beef up the national treasury instead of having all the money disappear into the shadow economy, I have heard that the army now allows you to officially buy your way out.  For $7,000, you can avoid military service entirely.  Given the recent uptick in tensions, it is not surprising that families are trying very hard to keep their sons out of the army.  One family I befriended asked me to give them $7,000 as their son is approaching draft age.  His brother is currently serving in Goris (good placement but not as good as Yerevan) and I assume they spent a hefty amount for that but have no savings left.  While the father mentioned he was only joking, he did "joke" about it four or five times.  Another family I met is busy liquidating assets to raise funds for their son-in-law who is soon due to enlist.

If you don't want to pay a bribe, you can also buy a medical diagnosis.  I don't know the going rate for those, but I know of some young men who were deemed medically unfit for service but seem a bit edgy when they tell me that.  And while I don't know exactly how it works, I know of a family whose grandson moved to Russia for a job right before he was due to enlist.  He is safe for now, but he may not be able to return to Armenia.

You can also be excused from military service if you say that you are gay because homosexuality is classified as a mental illness.  I am not sure how many (even truthfully) go that route, since the mental illness diagnosis can disqualify you from certain jobs or from even getting a driver's license - as well as potentially getting disowned by your family.

One last way that I have heard about to (legally) avoid army service is to get married and have kids.  I heard that if you have two kids before you are 20, you are excused. Given that you would have to get married by 17, that would be a challenging way to go. 

The issues with army service aren't limited to the possibility of sniper fire along the border.  There are periodic news reports of deaths that are classified as suicides, but for which further investigation calls that classification into question. Also, Human Rights Watch included this in their latest report about Armenia:

Local human rights groups report ill-treatment, hazing, and an alarming number of non-combat deaths in the army. The Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly’s Vanadzor Office reported at least 17 non-combat deaths through October 2011. For example, Torgom Sarukhanyan, 21, died in February, allegedly of a self-inflicted gunshot. Ministry of Defense investigators arrested three servicemen on charges of incitement to suicide. Sarukhanyan’s family claims that he was murdered and that his body bore signs of beatings.  In December 2010 a court sentenced Maj. Sasun Galstyan to three years imprisonment for abuse of authority. A video of Galstyan beating and humiliating two conscripts appeared on YouTube in September 2010.

In addition to that, the conflict with Azerbaijan continues and both sides are increasing defense spending.  With other matters tossed in (Israel vs. Iran, the fact that Iran and Azerbaijan aren't friendly) it is not outside the realm of possibility that things could escalate and there is a lot of press about the potential for that.  

It is interesting to talk to people who have been in the army about their thoughts on the mandatory service as it is structured now.  One I spoke to feels that the draft age is too low.  As most go in pretty much right after high school, there is no opportunity to develop the maturity needed to handle the experience.  He had served after a university deferral (entering the army at 21) and felt that age is more appropriate.

While I don't know any statistics about how many there are or what their roles are, I was surprised recently to see that there are women in the Armenian army.  There has been discussion in parliament lately about whether women should also have mandatory military service although I can't see that happening any time soon given the societal views about women's roles.

G I Janeyan
Given the real risks involved in army service here, there is a tradition of having a party for someone as he goes into the army ("banaki kef") and, more importantly, when he comes home.  Although I have not been to one, they are reputed to be much more raucous than the traditional parties I have been to (wedding and one-year-old birthday).

Another custom is for a guy to get a hand tattoo to show he was in the service (although not all do so).  The older men I have seen have more elaborate ones, while the younger generation's tend to be more modest.

My Gyumri host father

A more recent tattoo
I suppose that army service is intended to instill pride in the homeland - something that seems necessary given the troubled history here and the fact that this is still a young country despite its ancient history.  Unfortunately, other traditions here - class differentiation, corruption - are helping to fuel another, more recent tradition - emigration - to avoid service.