YEREVAN (Mediamax)–Armenia is about to launch a program that will strengthen civilian control over its armed forces, a move which experts say is a positive sign of Defense Minister Seiran Ohanian’s commitment to military reform.
The Armenia Defense Ministry is following Georgia’s example in carrying out a strategic defense review that will look at all aspects of its armed forces. This is a key component of the country’s Individual Partnership Plan, IPAP, with NATO.
International experts attended a seminar on the defense review held in Yerevan at the end of July.
The Armenian government has no ambitions to join NATO and the country remains part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a defense alliance within the Commonwealth of Independent States. But it says it wants the military to be more convergent with NATO standards in terms of transparency and ability to cooperate with other armed forces.
A law on "special civilian service" was adopted on January 1 this year under which decisions should be taken in the next month about which posts in the defense ministry can be held by civilians rather than serving military personnel.
There has been talk of military reform in Armenia’since the spring of 2005, when the then deputy defense minister Arthur Aghabekian–now head of the parliamentary commission on military affairs and security–said it was a priority for the ministry.
Aghabekian said that by 2015 Armenia’should create an army "meeting the deman’s of the 21st century, able to withstand new challenges and comprehensively guaranteeing the military security of the state".
However, little progress was made subsequently, especially after the then defense minister Serzh Sarkisian became prime minister in spring 2007. Sarkisian is now Armenia’s president.
"It is hard to say what exactly caused this [lack of progress]," said David Alaverdian, deputy director of the Armenian Center for Transatlantic Initiatives. "It was either that Mikael Harutiunian, who replaced Serzh Sarkisian as defense minister, was unprepared to embark on real change, or that the political decision to begin reforms had not been taken at the highest level.
"In any case, for many months NATO representatives were extremely sceptical about the capacity of the Armenian military leadership to push forward defence reforms successfully."
The new defense minister, however, has made a different impression.
In a speech to the defense ministry on May 30 this year, he said, "extremely responsible and difficult work lies ahead of us". He announced that a new commission, led by the chief of the general staff, would begin work on military reform, a new directorate for strategic planning would be set up, and a new law on defense would be adopted this autumn.
From this autumn, many of the military personnel now at the defense ministry will be employed as civilians.
"This calls for an extremely careful and thorough approach so that the rights of military personnel are not ignored," Ohanian said, stressing that it would be a major psychological change for the Armenian army.
Psychologist David Atarbekian described the kind of culture change the Armenian defense establishment will have to go if the reforms are to be successful. He said it was important for the defense ministry to recognize the need to change current ways of thinking, and to accept that there would be some resistance to this.
He noted that the military still enjoyed a unique position in Armenian society. "In present-day Armenia, the army is the only state institution which basically has the unconditional support of society, irrespective of their political sympathies," he said.
Atarbekian explained that there were no recorded cases of clashes between soldiers and civilians during the state of emergency imposed in Armenia from March 1 to 20 because of the violence that followed the disputed presidential election,
He noted that until now, belonging to the army has meant membership of a privileged caste, and losing this by giving up a military uniform would be a profound shock for many officers.
Ohanian is a key figure in these changes. A career officer in the Soviet military, he became an Armenian hero in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and was wounded in the fighting, losing a leg. His appointment and actions have been widely welcomed.
"In my view, the Armenian army will not weaken, but on the contrary become stronger because people’s level of trust in their armed forces will increase," said Tevan Poghosian, executive director of the Armenian Atlantic Association. "More regulated and precise planning of defense spending, as foreseen by our IPAP, will ensure that our army can be optimized."
No one opposes military reforms as such in Armenia, but some politicians are worried that the process will bring the armed forces too close to NATO and too far away from Moscow.
Russia and Armenia’signed a military cooperation treaty in 1995, and the Russia’s maintain a military base at Gyumri, Armenia’s second city.
Former defense minister Vagarshak Harutiunian, now an opposition politician, said a close relationship with Russia and membership of the CSTO was important not just militarily but economically as well, because it allows the country to buy weaponry at discounted prices. This is an important factor for Armenia when its entire national budget is less than neighboring Azerbaijan’s defense budget of more than 1.2 billion US dollars a year.
Harutiunian noted that most Armenian officers still train at Russian military academies.
"Russia’s military presence in Armenia is fully justified in terms of guaranteeing the security of our republic," said Harutiunian.