Armenia’s under-fire Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian has offered his condolences to the families of seven soldiers shot dead in non-combat incidents last week and assured them that “everything” is being done to solve the shock shootings.
“We are fully conscious that no words of consolation can ease the pain of the parents and other relatives of the dead,” he said in a televised address broadcast over the weekend. “No equation mark can be put between compassion and tears of irreversible sorrow.”
“But do believe me that every serviceman is my son, my younger brother, and that in this difficult moment, both you and myself need consolation and especially public support,” he said. “At the same time, I want to assure you that all necessary measures are being taken to identify the causes of the incidents and hold the guilty accountable.”
Ohanian listed all the victims by name. Six of them died in a single incident that reportedly occurred at an Armenian army unit in Nagorno-Karabakh on July 28, the day after the other serviceman, Lieutenant Artak Nazarian, was found dead on Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan.
Citing “preliminary information,” the Armenian Defense Ministry suggested Nazarian shot himself for unknown reasons, a claim angrily denied by his relatives. Ohanian was careful to stress that the officer died “in still unclear circumstances.”
Military investigators subordinated to Ohanian have so far reported no arrests and given no other details of the ongoing inquiry.
The shootings cast a renewed spotlight on the lingering problems of violence and other abuses in Armenia’s Armed Forces. They also sparked a barrage of public criticism of the military and Ohanian in particular. The latter has also faced resignation calls from newspapers and public figures critical of the government.
Ohanian clearly referred to the outcry when he urged the victims’ relatives not to trust in “discrediting gossips” and called for a broader public “restraint” over the shock deaths. “Let us not forget that this is our army, an army that won the Artsakh war and now ensures the security of our homeland,” he said.
“As defense minister of the Republic of Armenia, I am fully aware of our army’s problems, and want to assure you that the leadership of the Armed Forces have done and is doing everything to root out conditions giving birth to such incidents and to prevent human losses,” added the minister.
The assurances were questioned on Monday by civic activists that have long been monitoring and documenting army abuses. “This was the final straw in our patience, and we have no right to be silent,” said Greta Mirzoyan, chairwoman of the Soldier’s Mother non-governmental organization and a member of “public council” advising Ohanian. “Those incidents must be fully investigated and our public must know the truth.
Mirzoyan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service that she and other members the council raised their concerns with the minister at an urgent meeting late last week. She said he agreed to their demands for public figures’ involvement in the ongoing criminal investigation.
Artur Sakunts, a leader of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly of Armenia, was very skeptical about its results, warning of “yet another” cover-up of army deaths. He said they are the result of “an atmosphere of impunity” and corruption within the military.
“If the actions ordered by the defense minister produce no results, then he must resign,” Sakunts told RFE/RL. “Yet it is also clear that in this case, a mere change of individuals would have no impact because the problem is systemic.”
The main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) likewise alleged a “systemic crisis” of key state institutions as it expressed “deep concern about an unhealthy atmosphere and criminal practices reigning in the army.” In a statement issued late on Monday, the HAK said the resignation of the ruling “criminal regime” is the only way to remedy the situation.
The Armenian military insists that it is doing its best to strengthen discipline and address abuses within its ranks. It says the number of army deaths has steadily declined since the late 1990s. According to Defense Ministry data, at least seven Armenian soldiers died due to abuse and mistreatment and eleven others committed suicide last year.