Interview on Courrier d’Erevan

Taline Papazian is a PhD in political science. She is a strategic development advisor and expert based abroad at the Armenian Ministry of Defense in 2018 and 2019, and a lecturer at the University of Aix-Marseille. Author of numerous publications, she also directs the endowment fund “Armenia Peace Initiative”.

Interview by Olivier Merlet

The White Paper is published on the Armenia Peace Initiative website. Tell us a little more about this organization.

Armenia Peace Initiative is an endowment fund, i.e. a non-profit organization that promotes peace in the South Caucasus by working primarily on security: human security, technological security, societal security, governance security… It can receive public money and raise funds to support projects that are very different in appearance but which all have in common the goal of increasing security from a certain angle. Security is a holistic concept, but I believe that without security, no society can turn positively towards peace, especially when it has known only war for 30 years. Armenia Peace was created in April 2020, a few months before the war. We were well aware that it was necessary and this was unfortunately proven by the facts.

Promoting peace in the South Caucasus, and therefore in the whole region?

It is inseparable, but let’s start the work with “our house”. However, it is obvious that peace in Armenia, given its geopolitical situation, can only be real if it is real in the whole region. It is obvious that Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Russia, and by extension Europe are part of the picture to varying degrees.

The 3+3 format?

Yes, among others.

Where were you when the war broke out?

I was in France, I had just returned from Armenia a few days before.

What was the atmosphere there?

At the same time, there was a lot of insouciance on the part of the population in general, and a lot of concern on the part of those who read and followed the news more. They had a more lucid view of what was coming. There was also a certain euphoria after the small episode of July 2020, from which the Armenians had emerged convinced that they would have the upper hand in the event of a new war. So there was some concern, but not enough and in too few people. A real carelessness. Or unconsciousness.

The first one was made public and the second confidential, until Armenia solved its national security problems. What would not be in the public part?

It is impossible to say in advance, but there is a strong presumption that such an investigation would likely contain elements that could not be made public, at least in the first instance. To be honest, we asked ourselves the same question at the beginning for our white paper, but in the end we chose to publish it in its entirety in order to privilege the debate of ideas, with as many people as possible, and the transparency of the methodology as well as the questions asked. But for a commission of inquiry, the level of confidentiality would necessarily be very high. One must also take into account the domestic climate in which Armenia is today. The question of two reports would arise, at least initially.

Why make it public in this case?

Because it is absolutely necessary for this society to understand what happened to it, where the responsibilities are, how they are shared and defined. It must also be able to mourn what happened last year.

Understanding these mechanisms is part of the confidentiality aspect of things.

No, not necessarily. Maybe not all the names can be put in the public report… But look at what’s going on right now with the trials that are going on. You get the impression that they’re being decided a little bit randomly. To give the impression that something is being done, or even to give some satisfaction to the relatives of missing soldiers.

I’m not saying that those who are on trial right now shouldn’t be, but the principle, the standards by which the process of defining responsibility works are missing. There is a lack of understanding. If I position myself as a citizen, I do not understand why this trial and not another one, how it works, what kind of responsibility is sought, and why.

A commission of inquiry, independent and serious, should be the prerequisite of all this, and would then allow, in view of its observations and a clear understanding of the facts, to establish recommendations aiming at repairing the society, at reuniting it. Because for the last year Armenia has been in a state of internal division which is very serious and carries very important problems for the future.

Would this report be enough to heal the wounds?

It would make an important contribution, but, I repeat, if it is well done. The commission of inquiry that seems to be being set up would take the form of a special parliamentary commission. This is problematic: we know neither its mandate, nor its composition, nor its mode of operation. Its credibility will inevitably be questioned. It would be in everyone’s interest for this commission to be as neutral as possible, as independent as possible and, above all, non-political. Ideally, such a commission should indeed be ordered by a state institution, in this case, the parliament is in its role. It would provide it with human and financial resources, but then, and this requires a great deal of democratic maturity, total withdrawal! “Do your job, appoint the people in charge of the investigation, you have all the latitude to do so and our total support.” And that’s the end of it! “Come to us when you are done”.

The White Paper calls for a reform of the army citing provisions previously put in place. You mention the “Army Nation” programs dated 2017: from the Defense Department’s “Vision” one year later. What did they consist of?

They are “concept notes” formulated by the Ministry of Defense at the time following the 4-day war in April 2016. They were published under the title “Azg Banak”, “Nation-Army”. The general idea was to remobilize the whole society behind its army to both return its consideration and release a number of state funding for the military and future military. Housing programs, health care assistance, increased salaries, social benefits, a set of measures to enhance the value of the professional military function and at the same time, the establishment of specific study programs with scholarships for the most deserving. To ensure that they choose a military career out of real motivation and not by default, as was often the case. This note also defended a certain ideological vision: You can hear it well in “Azg Banak”, “Nation-army”, a vision adapted from the old Soviet model of a global army where the whole nation is engaged.

This was followed by its very concrete application through the creation of “Soldiers’ Insurance”, an idea promoted by President Serge Sargsyan, “Hazar plus”, or “Thousand plus” in Armenian, an insurance fund for soldiers wounded in operations or, for those who died in combat, for their beneficiaries. A sort of pension fund constituted by all citizens in the form of a deduction from all salaries, the equivalent of two euros. The idea was to get the whole of society involved, including financially, in supporting those who give their lives for the country or run the risk of being wounded and never regaining their former lives.

We can feel a real support of the population to its army, maintained by the media or by the public display in the streets of Yerevan. The population seems to be very close to its army and quite willing to pay its salaries.

Armenia is, in fact, at war since 1988, more or less. But for at least 20 years, a great paradox has been maintained – when I say “we”, I mean the public discourse of the political elites, especially those in power during the Kocharyan and Sargsyan years – and the population has been fed with the myth of “it’s over, we won, the war is over and time will do its work in the acceptance of what was imposed”. The 4-Day War in 2016 was a turning point. Not that this type of discourse totally disappeared afterwards, but there was a significant fracture within society.

In 2016, a blitzkrieg on the entire Karabakh contact line, the entire eastern part from north to south, and in 4 days, from memory 175 soldiers killed on the Armenian side, on the Azeri side, a little more than that figure, which is really a lot compared to the number of days. [The exact figures are still very controversial, depending on the source, from 100 to 300 Armenian deaths, from 91 to 568 on the Azeri side.] And then, for the first time, recovery of a piece of territory of a few hundred hectares by the Azeri forces.

From that moment on, in Armenia, all the credos of “it’s over”, of “our military superiority”, “our armed forces are doing well, “they have everything they need”, everything shatters. When Vigen Sargsyan, [Editor’s note: Minister of Defense from Oct. 2016 to April 2018], launches “Hazar plus,” there is an outcry. It’s not that people don’t want to help their soldiers, but they’re saying, ‘We have a corrupt government that squanders public money and doesn’t put it where it should go, especially in the army. Obviously, it is not as well equipped as they want us to believe, our air defense is defective, and we are asked to come and contribute from our own pocket. Where does the public money go? “? This “Hazar plus” measure did not go down well. Today, nobody questions it anymore, but at the beginning, it was not easy.

In spite of everything, it is true that Armenian society has always been morally very mobilized around its army. It is an institution that in the polls for at least two decades has achieved some of the highest levels of support and popularity.

And even before that, in the 90s, despite the terrible circumstances, “cold and darkness”, we felt the whole population was united behind its army and supported it unconditionally.

At that time, we were in the middle of a war, that’s normal, but it didn’t disappear in the 2000s. As I said, there was a lot of propaganda, especially after the departure of Levon Ter Petrossian, to keep the society extremely mobilized. But the gap between rhetoric and facts was already widening. The avoidance of military service, for example, is a reality, a very old problem. Yes, it is a society that “loves” its army, that “loves” its soldiers, for which it is almost sacrilegious not to say: “yes, the army is sacred” but is being a soldier sacred or not? It is not so obvious…

It seems even worse today: I recently met a lady whose 18-year-old son had just been drafted and she told me: I don’t want him to go to the army. Will the army give me my son back?

That’s a real question. Everyone is afraid that something will happen again, the situation is not stabilized, there will be casualties, we don’t know when or where, it could be anywhere on the line of contact. It’s a very anxiety-provoking situation. On the one hand we support the army and on the other hand we would like our son not to go and do his service, you understand. It’s the responsibility… If peace had been made a long time ago, we wouldn’t be asking ourselves these questions anymore. [Editor’s note: on November 16, shortly after this interview, Azerbaijani armed forces launched an offensive in eastern Armenia.]

Indeed, this is not a recent affair, the 5+2, the retrocession of territories… Was this the right thing to do?

Yes, except when it is the calculation of the leaders. Today, Serge Sargsyan defends this, but in fact, no head of state of Armenia from Kocharyan to Pashinyan has clearly demonstrated a willingness to make concessions to resolve the conflict. In short, they have bet on war – more or less contained – rather than on peace.

Everyone knows that a country with four times the population, which has hydrocarbons and has been rearming for 30 years, is facing us. How could the Armenian leaders let their population believe that there was a possible military superiority? Assuming it was in good faith on their part, what are we left with? Miscalculations all along.

From Nikol Pashinyan?

Pashinyan has rather inherited the overall miscalculation, even if he has made other, not so minor, miscalculations, such as the so-called dividend of the international community for the new Armenian democrats regarding the Karabakh issue. In the long run, the mistake was to think that Azerbaijan and foreign partners would eventually accept the Armenian demand for Karabakh. This is the reason for the lack of a clear definition of the concept of the “state of the art” in the context of the “state of the art”. But I repeat: assuming that the mistake was in good faith, which I doubt. At least for Kocharyan.

If not, what would that mean?

That there was an interest in staying in the status quo, or at least a short-sighted vision: “I’ll stay in power for 10 years, it works, there is money coming in for me and my relatives, I’ll take what I can get, and after me the deluge”. This being the case, it is difficult to put oneself in the head of the leaders.

In the last war, the Karabakh army was the only one to fight against the Azerbaijani forces, supported by Armenian conscripts, many of whom had very little experience. The Armenian National Army and especially its famous 5th Corps commanded by Major Andranik Piloyan never intervened, why, what happened?

I do not know. Is it one of the many effects of the disorganization and dysfunction of the mobilization process, as we have all noticed? Was it a story of logistics? This is not the case with the other two, but rather with the other two, which is the case with the other two, which is the case with the other two, which is the other two, which is the other two, which is the other two, which is the other two, which is the other two, which is the other one, which is the other one, which is the other one, which is the other one, which is the other one, which is the other one, which is the other one, which is the other one, which is the other one. Because they knew very well that Russia would not intervene anyway.

What are the dysfunctions you are talking about?

The conscription lists, let’s start with the most basic one, incomplete or not up to date lists, which can be explained by years of corruption to avoid service. After that, it’s the chicken and egg story. A lot of people volunteered, and so a number of their gathering points, such as veterans’ associations and the like, were quickly overwhelmed or had to organize their own battalions to go on the march.

But there was a call for volunteers.

Yes, but later, on October 25, when the dysfunction became so obvious, that the mobilization was not working, Pashinyan indulged in his favorite exercise on his Facebook page by posting a “live” calling everyone to mobilize.

However, there are many people who were waiting for their mobilization order, the bardat ready, and who waited for several weeks. Some took the initiative to go and others continued to wait. I am not in the bowels of the Ministry of Defense, I do not know what happened from the inside. We can only observe. We need a commission of inquiry to be able to shed light on all this, on why it went so wrong.

I come back to the “Vision” we were talking about earlier. These are 2 documents, formulated by the then Minister of Defense, Davit Tonoyan, released in June 2018 for the first, the second, just before the 2020 scuffles. It is a sort of mid-term progress report, a document that outlines what the armed forces were to become. The idea was that officers and NCOs should have much more latitude in their decision-making and not have to wait for orders from their superiors all the time. That they should develop a sense of mission and not just a sense of duty.

Moreover, the majority of senior officers are from the first war generation, there are not enough young non-commissioned officers and officers arriving today to replace them. The military career is not attractive, especially in comparison with the salaries that can be expected in the private sector, especially in the growth sectors. The best and brightest do not choose the army. It has remained a vision.

Downsizing, 3×5000 men, professional army, conscription, regular training of reservists, hybrid warfare… Are you advocating an Israeli-style scheme?

Doesn’t that sound like any modern army? Israel may have pioneered this model, but it can also be found in the Canadian army, in New Zealand, in Finland or in Switzerland. This is the definition of a modern army, many factors of which are particularly suitable to be adapted to the specific conditions of Armenia. Each model must be adapted to the local population and conditions. The regular mobilization of reservists, for example, is something that could help to relieve the extremely heavy weight of the capital in the military structure. By adapting the Canadian model, a model where the professional army is supported by a territorialized reserve and on a voluntary basis, we can create a very strong link between the reserve and the local communities.

Once again, all this needs to be developed, refined and quantified. The training of reservists needs to be reviewed, it is a necessity, it was very, very badly organized until now. Reservists were not called up, or were only called up once in a while for three days or a week, whereas they were supposed to be called up much more often and to participate regularly in real exercises. Their greater involvement is necessary. Obviously, we need to make sure that they don’t lose their jobs when they are called up, and that they are also compensated in some way, so that the model is attractive. Finally, women should also be involved more and differently. There are not enough women and they are probably too restricted to certain tasks, too separate. But slowly, things are changing.

This reform must above all be adapted to the desires and needs of today’s Armenian society. I will say something very trivial but which in my opinion must be taken into account: yes, the army is loved, but the army, the reserve, the service, and what is offered as a professional career to the professional soldiers must also fit today’s society. The latter has changed a lot in the last 20-25 years, not the army.

What would be needed to make it correspond to the expectations of society?

It is difficult to answer this question right away, but the military and the Ministry of Defense should absolutely ask themselves this question in order to generate a real appetite for military service and the reserves. They are not doing this.

The current model is very rigid, backward-looking. It is the great Russian block, specialized in the war of attrition, which does not correspond to our terrain. We have lost what we knew how to do very well, i.e. small bands, guerrilla warfare, we knew how to do all that very well. This has come back to the fore with the end of the war, because the classic army, the mobilization, did not work well. Certain categories in Armenian society, in particular groups of veterans of the previous wars, have been aware of the problems for a long time and are mobilizing more and more to propose palliatives.

However, the authority of the state should not be lost, there is a balance to be maintained. Armenia has never had the problem of uncontrollable armed gangs and it should not become so. I think that the state is well aware of this. When we reorganize, we should not lose the achievements, however small, of statehood. In short, we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and this applies to a series of gains made during this very difficult period, which we often hear about as having been lost for 30 years.

Can reforms such as these be encouraged by public opinion, or on the contrary, does it represent an obstacle? Does it want an army that defends its border over 1300 km or rather what you propose today?

I would distinguish between two fundamental things: the aim of the reforms we are proposing is not to weaken the army, quite the contrary, but neither is it a question of following public opinion too closely, especially in view of the frivolity, superficiality and unfortunate tendency to populism of the present government. The result could be catastrophic, and we must be very careful.

I recommend that the experts who consider the question of army reform take into account sociological surveys to find out where society as a whole stands. In relation to its army in general, not only in Yerevan, in all regions of the country. How does it see itself engaging in the army, what does it expect from it, what is it ready to give it? And so on. Not to feed the Prime Minister’s Facebook page, but to serve as material, among other things, to refine the reforms that may be underway today. We would not come out of this with a weakened army, far from it, but with a different army, no less able to protect its borders.

We have seen that this is not the case in its current state and situation. We know that a reform is underway, and that there is a shared recognition of its ineffectiveness. Does it respond in a targeted way to the needs of today’s Armenia, or are we once again copying a model that is going to be blown to us by Russia? A Russian model on the cheap, moreover, because it is obvious that the Russians are not going to give us the best of what they know how to do. That’s where I would be more vigilant. We need a model that is targeted to our needs and to what we can do, and to what society wants, because we won’t be able to do without it.

You were talking about Russia and alliances, Armenia is currently at the head of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization), an alliance in which the other countries are not frankly pro-Armenian…

It is clear. What exactly are our alternatives? We talk about it in the book, is NATO an alternative? No. Can we get out of a very strong alliance with Russia? No, absolutely not. So since we cannot change our alliance, can we improve relations with our two neighbors in order to neutralize the security threats they represent? Yes, we can, and we must.

How can we do it?

By going out and talking to them, for one thing. And obviously, there will be points on which we will have converging interests to secure or manage, at least modest things like a water source, a pasture… If there is a pasture to share or a water point to manage so that both local populations can benefit from it, we must be able to work on this together. These are things that interest both parties. Small things, it should start with small things. The important thing is to start, to be able to experiment, even at a very local level. This would certainly initiate forms of cooperation, instead of remaining in this “dogs of faience” mode where we wait for the first incident to shoot at each other. Given the history of our relations, it is probably better not to start at the highest official and visible level, but at more discreet, lower levels. This is the reason why the Russian peacekeepers are not only used to register the grievances of the various parties, but also to agree on a way of functioning, in the configuration that exists today. That when an accident occurs, these peacekeeping forces are not only in a firefighting mode, but in a mode of prevention of the future crisis.

Read the original version in french on Courrier d’Erevan