YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–President Serzh Sarkisian has appointed Armenia’s former top military representative to NATO as first deputy minister of defense and relieved the controversial chief of the Armenian military police of his duties.
The appointments announced at the weekend may be a prelude to a further reform of the Armenian military and a response to a recent series of non-combat deaths within its ranks.
Colonel Davit Tonoyan, who will hold the hitherto vacant post of first deputy minister, had served as the military’s first permanent representative to the NATO headquarters in Brussels for several years before becoming the head of the Defense Ministry’s Department of Defense Policy in 2007. Tonoyan, 42, is widely regarded as Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian’s right-hand man.
Ohanian has favored closer cooperation between Armenia and NATO ever since being appointed defense minister more than two years ago. He is also known as a strong backer of defense reforms that would bring the Armenian army into greater conformity with NATO standards and practices.
In another decree signed by Sarkisian, Major-General Vladimir Gasparian was dismissed as chief of the military police and named deputy minister. Although the appointment technically constitutes a promotion, it may well have resulted from several deadly incidents that have rocked the armed forces since late July. Sarkisian’s office did not give any reasons for the decree.
Meanwhile, yet another Armenian soldier died in suspicious circumstances on Sunday. A Defense Ministry statement said the 18-year-old conscript, Samvel Khachatrian, was founded hanged in the basement of his military unit. It gave no further details.
An official at the ministry’s Investigative Service told RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Monday that Khachatrian served in Nagorno-Karabakh and that it has launched a criminal investigate into his non-combat death. Investigators have not arrested anyone yet, the official said.
Gegham Harutiunian, an adviser to Ohanian, said the military is also conducting a separate inquiry led by General Valeri Grigorian, deputy chief of the army staff. “I am confident that as a result of measures taken by the Defense Ministry and the army command, this chain [of deadly incidents] will be broken,” Harutiunian told RFE/RL.
According to Artur Sakunts, a human rights campaigner monitoring army crime, as many as 13 Armenian soldiers have died in non-combat incidents in the last three months. “That’s one soldier per week,” he said. “That’s a disgrace.”
Speaking to RFE/RL, Sakunts stood by his view that the deadly incidents are the result of incompetence and corruption among various-level military commanders. “I can’t understand why they appointed [Gasparian] as deputy minister of defense,” he said. “That can not have a substantial impact on the prevention of such cases.”
“I wouldn’t say such cases have become more frequent,” insisted Harutiunian. “There is just more publicity surrounding problems related to the army.” He said the number of non-combat deaths fell drastically in the first half of this year.