ARMENIAN SOCIETY SPLIT OVER ARMY CONTROVERSY
By Ara K. Manoogian
About two weeks ago a scandalous YouTube video of sadism in the Armenian army sent an alarm to thousands of people. Today it’s their reaction to the 4 minute and 42 second video that is more alarming. The question seems to have remained unanswered: is the footage a threat to Armenia’s national security or its content? Shortly after its online debut, the scandalous video disappeared, but I had managed to download it and immediately secured its availability online. I think I know why the other postings disappeared—a few days after I posted my copy of the video I was contacted by the 6th Division of the Armenian Police and the Defense Minister of Artsakh, Lieutenant-General Movses Hakobyan.
The short video documenting an officer—later identified as Major Sasun Galstyan—hitting and humiliating two Armenian soldiers in the Armenian army has crowded the web with numerous articles, blog entries, Facebook discussions and, importantly, comments, which have effectively become a talking mirror of Armenian society.
It has to be acknowledged that the content of the video is only a fraction of what happens in the army in the course of two long years of mandatory military service in a country where war has been perpetually imminent for more than a decade. It’s just the tip of an iceberg. By many accounts, by far more sadistic and vicious practices have been taking place at the Armenian military bases every day, many of which have caused murder or suicide. As Arrrmenian, a YouTube user, says in a comment on the video where he orders me to take it down: “It’s a shame. Remove it from here. Who doesn’t know that there are such things?…” However, up until now, there hadn’t been any publicly available video of inhuman treatment in the Armenian army before this one, at least to the best of my knowledge. This circumstance, along with the skyrocketing increase in the number of internet users in Armenia, has made this incident a sensation. Other factors that have contributed to the culmination of public outrage are the very recent suicides and/or murders of a few Armenian servicemen.
Judging by the reaction of the general public to the video material and its content in the form of essays, comments, blogs or forums, I have divided the responses into 10 categories:
1. Lynch Group: I condemn the act of violence and want to commit an act of violence against the abuser.
The people in the Lynch Group have mainly expressed themselves in the form of comments to the video material and less frequently to news articles or blog entries. Their responses mainly contain vulgar language, combined with a longing to do the same to the sadist or, in a few cases, readiness to rape him to death. The Lynch Group is one of the largest in this categorization. These people are the ones most furious about the scenes of brutality; however, in their rage they become quite identical to the actual offender by wanting to do the same and even worse things to him. On the other hand, their sincere reaction reflects and comes to compensate the impotence of the corrupt Armenian authorities, who have constantly been failing to address similar issues properly or simply have disregarded them.
2. Ultraemotional Group: I condemn the act of violence and wish someone committed an act of violence against the abuser.
This group includes people whose response is expressed mainly through comments, both under the video and news articles or blog entries. Just like the Lynch Group, they write comments full of vulgar language, coupled with damnation, like in the following fragment of akravum‘s comment: “May his mother’s womb have dried up so that he wouldn’t have come to this world.” Ultraemotionalists want to see the offender lynched; however, unlike the Lynch Group members, they want someone else to do the dirty job. The desire for lynching also reflects the lack of public confidence in the efficiency of the justice system in Armenia. However, their passivity doesn’t stir the current status quo.
The following are typical comments peculiar to this group (I have bolded the hangmen suggested by the user to do the dirty job for them):
Armen011472: “This guy needs to be publicly hung with the hands of these kids’ parents.”
DaveArtsruni: “I wanted to leave a comment but I feel that it’s impossible to express it in a literary form. In a nut shell, this guy should be sent to a penal battalion to regular soldiers and let them know why he was sent there.“
bjshdav: “I will neither say bad words nor write a long comment. May God make sure your children are subjected to the same thing.”
3. Emotional Group: I condemn the act of violence and demand severe punishment for the offender.
Emotional reaction is common for all the categories introduced in the current list. What makes this group distinct is that its representatives linger in that initial emotional stage and tend to express their opinions under the immediate influence of the shock, without waiting for common sense to kick in. The Emotional Group is a category of people who are very sympathetic toward the victims of the officer’s sadism. They express their hatred toward the offender as severely as the previous groups, however tend to limit their anger to foul language. These emotional people sometimes forget to mention whether they want to see the offenders punished in any way and, when they do, are usually too affected by their emotions to specify whether they want the offenders to be lynched or tried in court. One thing common is that it occurs to none of them to acknowledge the videographer. The following comment by yeapum describes the group: “little by little from a patriotic person i am turning into a hater of my nation. seriously.“ The last word in his statement directly indicates that he has simply given in to a temporary emotional breakdown, feeling defeated, which compelled him make a public statement, to which he’s not likely to remain faithful.
4. Concerned Citizen Group: I condemn the act of violence, demand severe punishment for the offender and encourage the dissemination.
This category comprises mostly journalists, human rights activists, intellectuals or, simply, concerned citizens. Like people in the previous groups they condemn the act of violence, however, they are generally specific about the type of punishment—conviction. Unlike the previous groups, despite their emotional fit caused by the video content, concerned citizens don’t forget to indicate the importance of dissemination of such materials. They believe in grass roots activism and therefore make sure to call for the safety of people who flag vicious activities and encourage them.
This group also includes a political player—the oppositional Armenian National Congress, which has released a somewhat overly emotional official statement condemning the act of violence, as well as the intention of the Ministry of Defense to seek severe punishment for the author of the video and whoever contributed to its dissemination.
The following YouTube comment by arturo3312 makes a constructive offer to help discover the offenders: “Dear people, send this video to your friends, let everyone watch it, someone may recognize either the soldiers or that son of beast commander. That’s the only way to find and punish him.” This comment had been removed, and I was able to recover it thanks to my email notifications to all the YouTube comments on the video.
I recently received an interesting email from a friend of mine who has been closely following developments in Armenia: “The Armenian government will do nothing about this, just as it has done nothing about the endemic corruption in the country. The solution is simple. The soldiers should do what the American soldiers did in the Vietnam War–shoot the officers in the back. Eventually, the message was received by the officers.“
His message made a lot of sense to me. However, since for the past week I’ve been preoccupied with categorizing comments, I tried to define this message, too. Despite superficial similarities with the first two groups calling for lynching, this commentary definitely belongs in this category of concerned citizens. Pessimistic about the will power of the incumbent authorities to address this issue appropriately, he evokes a historic precedence that has proved an eye for an eye as an effective solution. I believe that this message tacitly points at the other direction—overthrow the corrupt authorities if you don’t want the escalation of brutality within the ranks of the Armenian army.
5. Concerned Patriot Group: I condemn the act of violence, demand severe punishment for the offender but disapprove dissemination.
This group of people consists of the authorities, most political activists with the exception of the oppositional Armenian National Congress, and regular patriotic people. They condemn the act of violence, however disapprove of disseminating the video material believing that it may demoralize the Armenian army. They’re also convinced that the enemy may use it against Armenia. From this group, no one has come up with a comprehensive analysis of ways that Azerbaijan could effectively use this information against our country, given that similar violence has been plaguing the ranks of their army. The people in this category also disapprove the dissemination of the video because they fear it will diminish love for the homeland and perhaps cause mass desertion, which is a threat to national security. However, who didn’t know what has been going on in the army since it was created?
A typical example is the following comment by Hagop Toroyan, a Diaspora Armenian, who reacted aggressively to a Facebook link to the video on the Policy Forum Armenia page: “Shame on you, Ara Manoogian! Rather than circulating these negative propaganda against Armenia, the positive step is to write directly to authorities. You are just self absorbed selfish carpetbagger.” I’m surprised that this person doesn’t realize that what happens in the video is the consequence of the failure of the Defense Ministry to follow up on thousands of complaints it has received from thousands of citizens and NGOs, including my own voice, about more serious violence taking place in the army.
I would also include Arsen (who avoided providing his last name) from the Cyber Crime Department of the 6th Division of the Armenian Police in this group. Within minutes after a call from the Defense Minister of Artsakh (see below), I got a call from Arsen who said: “We want to expose, we want to find that officer, the one that does those things to the soldiers.” I told him that I had only copied the video from someone else and had no idea about the original source. He then asked me who I had copied it from, “so that we can find it out from him.” I emailed them the Youtube source I had copied the video from. Arsen was nice to me and didn’t ask me to remove the video from YouTube.
However, I don’t exclude the possibility that the representatives of the 6th Division of the Armenian Police I interacted with on the phone belong to the next group, Pseudo-Patriot Group, whose main concern veiled by generic condemnation of the violence is the punishment for dissemination. They may have been nice to me because I am out of their control, being a U.S. citizen and at the time of the call was not within arm’s reach of their interrogation room. There is no evidence to conclude that they have been as nice to Menua Harutiunyan (owner of slaq.am) and Aram Harutiunyan (owner of asekose.com), who, according to Chorrord Inknishkhanutiun Daily, as quoted by Tert.am, were summoned to the 6th Division a couple of days later and interrogated with the purpose of discovering the original source of the video material. Aram Harutiunyan, a former Haylur anchor, was reportedly released after a phone call from an important person. The fact is that the copy of the video they posted on YouTube is no longer available.
I am sincerely happy for Aram, if the rumors have it right; however, this is a clear message to common people in Armenia. Unless you have a powerful figure standing behind you, freedom of speech is fire one should not play with.
6. Pseudo-Patriot Group: I condemn the act of violence, demand severe punishment both for the offender and whoever uploaded/disseminated the video.
The first statement Colonel-General Seyran Ohanyan, Defense Minister of Armenia, made in regards to the YouTube video in question is by far the best definition for this group: “Ministry of Defense severely condemns the preparation and premeditated dissemination of such materials directed at compromising and discrediting the Armed Forces of the Republic of Armenia.” Most media outlets were outraged over this statement, which prioritized punishment for the author of the video. This group is comprised primarily of the military leadership and personnel, in general. Even if they do punish the offenders involved in this vicious incident, their motives for exposing the crime may not cheer up people who expect justice to prevail and eradication of evil practices in the army.
“Ohanyan is doing everything to conceal these facts; he may catch that guy and punish him secretly for ruining the honor of the Armenian Army and not for torturing a soldier,“ wrote FourSeasonRunner in a comment to the YouTube video. There’s truth in this conjecture, but I believe Sasun Galstyan will be punished for his sloppiness that allowed a can of worms to be opened. How can you expect a Minister of Defense sincerely to want to punish someone for power and physical abuse if he himself was infamously known to have committed such a crime? Who now remembers the heinous group beating of Pavel Manukyan, initiated by General Seyran Ohanyan inside his office on June 21, 2005, when he was the Defense Minister of Artsakh?
In a comment on the editorial of Aravot Daily a user named aramar has drafted an interesting alternative statement he/she wished to hear from the Ministry of Defense: “RA Ministry of Defense severely condemns such vicious phenomena occurring in the RA Defense Army (should be Artsakh Defense Army or RA Armed Forces – A.M.), encourages preparation of such materials and, in the event of possessing such facts, urges to submit them to the Defense Ministry before publicizing. We assure that we will not leave it without response and guarantee the safety of those who will present facts. More than anyone else we are interested in the eradication of similar practices in our army.” I believe that this text, as raw as it is, sounds more becoming than the official statement released by the Defense Ministry.
Nevertheless, eight days after aramar’s posted a draft statement for Defense Ministry in the form of a comment to Aravot editorial, “President Serzh Sarkisian’s Chief Military Adviser effectively defended on Thursday individuals who filmed and publicized abusive treatment of two soldiers by their commander, which has caused public outrage in Armenia. The official, Colonel-General Mikael Harutiunian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service that the scandal could actually help the Armenian military combat chronic hazing and other abuses within its ranks,” writes ArmeniaNow.com. Obviously this statement made by the former Defense Minister of Armenia notorious for having signed orders which resulted in the death of 10 Armenian civilians on March 1-2, 2008, who were protesting the fraudulent presidential elections, was prepared under the pressure of public outrage and, specifically, the concerned citizens’ incessant demands that the authorities address the issue in an appropriate manner and leave the videographer alone.
Military leadership has always been sweeping human rights violations in the army under the rug, justifying it by their reluctance to play into enemies’ hands for the sake of national security. A statement in the address of the Armenian National Congress regarding the brutality in the army is a very good response to this groundless fear tactics: “Any human being who has been submitted to such inhuman humiliation—especially a young man 18-19 years of age—may both commit suicide and murder and escape to the enemy.”
When I returned to his previous question as to why I had posted the video, I pointed out the inefficiency of previous responses from the Defense Ministry to similar occasions, which have remained unresolved. “Can you bring me one example?” he insisted. I told him of two specific examples. Bulgarian Journalist Tsvetana Paskaleva and I once witnessed shirtless young soldiers at the Second Defense Region of Artsakh. One of them had marks of a hot iron on his back, and two other soldiers looked like they had been severely thrashed with a whip or a belt. We reported the case to the then Defense Minister, Samvel Babayan. No investigation was conducted and no one was officially punished for exercising violence.
Later on, in 2001, I met a lady in Artsakh whose son, Arsen, was charged with the murder of a fellow soldier. The latter was killed at the Third Defense Region by an officer who had tortured him to death and had afterwards laid the blame on Arsen. I had resolved to save the innocent soldier from imprisonment for a crime he had not committed. I spoke with the Military Prosecutor in Martuni and other officials involved including the judge who would hear the case. After numerous interventions on my part, the charges against the soldier were eventually dropped. However, the real murderer was never put to trial or officially punished in any other way as far as I know. I was warned that I could be harmed if I continued interfering in this case.
The failure of both Armenian and Artsakh military leadership to address these and dozens of other vicious practices I have dealt with, as well as the failure of the justice systems to guarantee the administration of justice and fair trial in the army, have compelled me to seek solution through an effective method I have implemented in the past—shock therapy— which in this case has resulted in public outrage following the exposure of documented gruesome brutality in the ranks of the Armenian army.
7. Closet sadists: I think it’s a normal treatment toward conscripts.
“I really don’t see despicable behavior or brutal act or atrocity in this video. Actually this is some kind of training and fatherly attitude. The Armenian army cares very much about its young soldiers,” writes vahagnhovhannisyan in his comment to the YouTube video. For some time this comment was a rarity amid thousands of hysterical and furious comments all over the Armenian web. However, this group of closet sadists or masochists was suddenly joined by two more people in the most unexpected way. The two new members to this group were the very victims of their commander’s brutality. The Military Police was quoted by Haykakan Zhamanak as saying “the victims have made a statement that they have nothing against their commander ‘since he is a normal commander.'” Judging by this statement, these young conscripts are either masochists or fear more brutal retribution. The latter, I believe, is more likely.
Encouraged by public outrage over the video, a former conscript told about his experience to a Hraparak Daily journalist on conditions of anonymity. This excerpt from a story titled “Khachaturov’s Son Is Behind Their Back” highlights the kind of fear that is rooted in the Armenian conscripts due to impunity of the military leadership:
“Once Minister Seyran Ohanyan paid an unexpected visit to the military base. Nobody, even the commander of the regiment, didn’t know he was going to come. It was lunch time. He came, had dinner with the soldiers, ate the same food as we did. Then he took a tour in the battalions, came up to the soldiers on day duty, inquired about their duties. Everyone gave answers, and were presented with commemorative medals. Everyone was happy that the Minister had arrived. He turned to us and asked to us to go ahead and express complaints or suggestions if we have any. But none of the soldiers said anything because they knew that if they only complained or show discontent, worse things would happen to them after Seyran Ohanyan’s departure.”
8. Nationalist Conspiracy Group: I believe the video is fake and was a setup planted by the Azeris.
This group of people dissolved following the release of an official statement by the Ministry of Defense, on September 17, that all the people in the video have been identified and detained. Prior to that, this short-lived group of people zealously displayed resentment in regard to the video material. They were weaving primitive conspiracy theories about Azeri Special Forces that had supposedly prepared the video to demoralize the Armenian army. They were reluctant to believe whom they saw belonged to the same race as themselves, since it contradicted their idealized image of Armenians and the victorious army, an important source of pride.
Kazhayko, a typical representative of the Nationalist conspiracy group has gone as far as trying to prove the fakeness of the video: “People, this video has been prepared by the Azerbaijani special forces with the purpose of instilling hatred in our nation toward our army,,, There are two facts in that regard. First, look at the way they’re squatting (they are squatting like a Turk, especially, the pot-bellied one). Secondly, see when he’s sending him for water—there are no such bottles at our stores, let alone in the army.“
The interesting phenomenon about these people is that they’re not avowed conspiracy theorists, rather patriotic people who resort to it. Unlike this category of people, the Nationalist group had to admit the authenticity of the video, however similar to the Conspiracy group members, they didn’t want to come to terms with the fact that the offender is as much an Armenian as themselves. gdale55‘s comment is a bright example: “F… your mother, his mother must have been f…ed by a Turk if such a son of a b… was born,” he says in a comment to the YouTube video. Both types of reactions are abundant on the web. Rather than showing them as true patriots who uphold the notion of Armenianness, these infantile comments expose a sizable army of brain-washed Armenians who don’t have the basic courage to face the bitter reality that calls for action rather than chasing pipe dreams.
Similar resentment to face the bitter reality that human vices don’t recognize ethnic borders is present in an open letter titled “A Sobering Letter To State Institutions Directly Or Indirectly Associated with Anti-Armenian Phenomena Occurring In The Army,” which the nationalistic organization called Unity of Armenian Youth (Հայազն երիտասարդների միաբանություն) has addressed to a number of ministers on September 23, 2010. To describe the violent nature of interactions between young Armenian conscripts, they word it as unArmenian (ոչ Հայեցի) relations. I immediately wanted an example of this truly Armenian conduct to which they obviously allude, since all I could think of was that in no other country have I seen so many men with a black eye as frequently as in Armenia. Isn’t the violent nature of interactions between Armenian men what nowadays constitutes the “true spirit of Armenian conduct”?
9. Nationalist Group: I condemn the act of dissemination of the video.
This is quite a paradoxical group of nationalist people. Unlike the people in the previous category of nationalist conspiracy theorists, nationalists don’t question the authenticity of the video material. What they seem to be concerned most about is that the video material smears their image of Armenianness and, secondly, ruins the make-believe world of idealized Armenianness that is promoted by state propaganda for foreigners to admire.
Nationalists don’t condemn the documented violence at all. Their love for their national identity makes them turn a blind eye to the suffering of a fellow human who is an indivisible component of that very identity they worship. They cold-heartedly condemn the dissemination of the video, without expressing any sympathy for the suffering or rebuking the offender who is yet another indivisible component of the whole—the Armenianness that they worship.
10. Lynch Group 2: I condemn the act of dissemination and want to commit an act of violence against the disseminator.
This is where the ending meets the beginning to form a circle and show the real dangers that extreme positions usually carry. People in both groups are identical in their temper and urge for violence, but different in their choice of the subject. This group consists of numerous people who have been contacting me with threats and demands to remove the video from YouTube. Most of these people have spiced up their messages with vulgar language quite similar to those addressed to the offender by the members of the first Lynch Group. Some of them have called me a traitor. The following threat I have received from HocaVram YouTube user is a typical example: “Aren’t you scared that you will be convicted for the video material you have posted and your “dvizheni” (an Armenified Russian word implying “unbridled activity” – A.M.)? You have two hours to remove the video. Understand as you wish, but otherwise, to put it mildly, you’ll regret it.” I have ignored this threat, since I have learned that barking dogs rarely bite and the video, as you can see, is still up and running.
This categorization could well be extended further, however, I believe it has served its purpose of showing the main tendencies and concerns in public opinion. I should also note that among thousands of comments I have studied, there have been many hybrid ones that could fall under different categories at the same time. For instance, a YouTube comment by hharutyu: “This is probably President Sarkissian’s or Kocharyan’s relative. I don’t know how these animals came to Armenia and started ruling our nation. These are Like Turks. (The rest is a translation from Armenian – A.M.) F… your mouths. You, products of whores. That’s why nobody joins the army. It’s like you’re not Armenians, whores. May I cum in your mother’s breast milk!” This comment fluctuates between the Emotional Group and the Nationalist Conspiracy Group, as well as a category of people who wish to commit acts of sexual perversion against the offender, which, unlike the Lynch Group, have no intention of killing him.
Through these 10 categories I have tried to draw a picture of the contemporary society in Armenia and, to some extent, the Armenian Diaspora. I should point out that, thanks to the responses by people from all of these categories, the issue has gained weight in the eyes of the military leadership. I hope that consequently justice will be administered through a fair trial thanks to the enormous publicity of the matter and heightened alertness of the society. However, what I have found alarming in my amateur statistic analysis is that the inadequate and unproductive reaction is prevalent. I’m primarily concerned with threats and calls for removing the video. Equally alarming is the demand that the offenders be lynched, as well as the readiness to carry it out personally. On the one hand, although their lynching inclinations may be viewed as a sign that people don’t believe in fair administration of justice in Armenia, keeping it dormant and accepting the status quo doesn’t take us any closer to building a more law-abiding society. On the other hand, it shows that physical violence remains a popular method for solving issues in Armenia. Who could prove that Sasun Galstyan wasn’t solving a problem of some sort by beating up the two soldiers? He may have chosen the same method as the two Lynch Groups. At the same time, the number of concerned citizens as described in the 4th category of the list is growing, and I strongly support their active stance, which is expressed mainly through media.
It is important to realize that the struggle is not over—we have to keep an eye on further developments. Despite the encouraging statement made by Mikael Harutiunyan, RA President’s Chief Military Adviser, Artur Sakunts, a human rights activist monitoring violent incidents in the army, is quoted by Armenianow.com as having told RFE/RL that “he is worried that the Defense Ministry may seek to punish them as well. ‘Instead of encouraging the spread of information about army crime, the Defense Ministry is trying to muzzle people.’” After all, what the videographer’s relative, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Armenianow.com already sounds an alert: “It turns out that the conscript who shot the video is pressured more than the ‘cannibal’ [meaning officer Galstyan], who humiliates soldiers.” Yet another factor that requires attention is that, according to the statement released by Armenia’s Military Police, Sasoun Galstyan is charged with abuse of power based on Article 375 of the Armenian Criminal Code (3-5 years of imprisonment), whereas so far there has been no mention of the articles regarding “intentional denigration of honor and dignity, as well as premeditative infliction of physical injury,” as prompted by Anna in her comment to an article at Hetq.am.
All these factors indicate that our society has to stay alert at all times and make sure justice is served by the letter and the spirit of the law.
One thing to keep in mind is that there are always exceptions to the rules, and my categorization is not an exception. Samvel Sargsyan, an Armenian army officer responsible for media, would, by default, fall into the category #6, the Pseudo-Patriot Group, which comprises mainly military personnel, if we hadn’t communicated by email following my publication of the notorious video. He was, by the way, the first person to contact me regarding that recording. Here’s what Samvel Sargsyan wrote to me at his personal initiative in an unofficial email:
Thank you for responding me back.
I have heard about you and the fantastic job that you are doing there for us for Armenia and for all diaspora.
I am an Armenian officer and I really care of MY ARMY. The reason that I wrote you it is the famous video in YouTube and also in http://www.aramanoogian.blogspot.com/ I am going to use all my recourses and the people that I know to find out that sadistic officer shown in the video.
I totally agree with you on matter of “Tomorrow it might be too late”
Please help me find out the source of this video and those people who are responsible for this kind of humiliation.
I hope I will get some help from you.”
This gives me hope that people like him serving for the Armenian Army at the Ministry of Defense may bring real change.
Ara K. Manoogian is a human rights activist representing the Shahan Natalie Family Foundation in Artsakh and Armenia, as well as a member of the Washington-based Policy Forum Armenia (PFA)