Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Gyumri Murders Threaten to Disrupt Armenia's Relations with Russia

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By Eduard Abrahamyan (02/18/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Armenia’s relationship with Russia has never been simple. Although Russia has considered Armenia a reliable ally since its independence, the relationship has never transformed into a formal partnership. Russia’s policy of double standards on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and its delivery of weaponry to Azerbaijan has gradually increased distrust in Armenian society towards Russia in recent years. A bloody incident in Gyumri on January 12, 2015, when a soldier from the deployed Russian 102nd military base killed the entire Avetisyan family in their sleep, including two children, has catalyzed a vivid debate in Armenia on the nature of the relationship to Russia.

BACKGROUND: The murders in Gyumri have implications not only for public attitudes toward Russia’s military presence in Armenia, but has also exposed a deep crisis in bilateral relations.

The Russian 102nd base is deployed close to the city of Gyumri, according to a treaty between Russia and Armenia from 1995, which defined the base’s main functions and presence for 25 years. In 2010, President Dmitry Medvedev and his counterpart Serzh Sargsyan signed another agreement to extend the deployment of the base for 49 years. According to the 2010 arrangement, the territory used by the base was enlarged while the legal restrictions on the activities and conduct of the Russian contingent existing in the initial treaty were abolished. In other words, the strategic and geographic scope of the contingent’s activities was extended and in return, Russia committed to protect Armenia’s south-western borders and modernize Armenia’s Armed Forces. To date, a considerable share of the base’s maintenance has been paid for through Armenia’s state budget.

The base houses 5,000 troops and suspicions exist that the command is working to exploit internal vulnerabilities in Georgia in terms of both national minorities and military affairs. Furthermore, it is believed that the base leadership is tasked with monitoring Middle Eastern political developments, due to the fact that the base is Russia’s closest military outpost to the Middle East. 

Despite of the “protection” objective, the recent tragic occasion in Gyumri was not the first. Six murders and at least twelve serious injuries have taken place in Gyumri, which has cultivated a sense of fear and insecurity in local society. On the one hand, Armenian authorities have adopted a policy of passivity in dealing with Russia, reflecting a kind of obedience to Putin rather than political prudence. Criticism that has been raised towards Armenian authorities on this state of affairs is usually met by a ready answer that Armenia has alternative security guarantees. On the other hand, Russia has readily used its tools of coercion against Yerevan, which happened in September 2013 and November 2014, when Armenian authorities declined to sign an Association Agreement with EU and instead joined the Eurasian Union, initiated by a state suffering from economic sanctions.

IMPLICATIONS: Besides political coercion, Russia has frequently used a policy of intimidation against Armenia. There is a growing understanding in Armenia that Russia’s dominance in the country is impeding its economy and undermining its security. Hence, to contain discontent toward Russia in Armenian society, Moscow has worked to promote the idea that Armenia is unviable as a sovereign state and needs powerful Russian protection from possible Turkish aggression, the embodiment of which is the Russian 102nd base in Gyumri.

This propaganda has been accompanied by a permissiveness regarding the conduct of Russian military personnel in Gyumri, which ultimately led to the recent tragedy. A Russian soldier named Valeriy Permyakov shot six members of the Avetisyan family and escaped. Within a few hours, he was detained by other Russian soldiers unlawfully tracing the killer in parallel with Armenian police. He was then escorted to the territory of the Russian base, again in violation of Armenian law. When these facts became publicly known, mass protests with anti-Russian overtones were organized in Gyumri and Yerevan. Protesters vigorously demanded that the murderer be handed over to Armenia’s prosecutor’s office, while Armenia’s Prosecutor General Gevorg Kostanyan has, similarly to the state authorities, shown little enthusiasm and attempted to calm the protesters rather than demand that Russian military personnel respect Armenian law. The Armenian authorities’ reluctance to stand by the protesting citizens radically enhanced the anti-Russian and anti-governmental sentiments in Armenian society. The protesters basically argued that taxpayers’ money is being used to pay for soldiers that kill Armenian citizens, rather than protecting them.

As long as the Russian military refuses to hand Permyakov over to Armenian jurisdiction, it remains clear to many Armenians that the Russians intend to protect not only the main perpetrator, but also his accomplices. While the Russian side has assured that it is interested in a fair trial, its credibility has been so severely damaged that only a minority of Armenians expect relations between the countries to be restored to previous levels in the foreseeable future. 

As Russian officials, including Foreign Minster Sergey Lavrov, and some representatives of Russia’s political elite like Alexander Dugin, Sergey Kurginyan, and Sergey Markov have declared, the South Caucasus is Russia’s sphere of influence. Particularly, Armenia is considered the last bastion of Russia’s military presence in the South Caucasus. Therefore, political activities of “unauthorized” groups expressing pro-Western or anti-Russian opinions and demanding a change of Armenia’s political priorities are perceived in Russia with cautious sensitivity. 

The Russian side continues to keep Permyakov inside the base and rejects to hand him over, hoping that the public upheaval will eventually calm down. Moreover, Russian officials on February 5 declared that Permyakov, according to medical expertise, is suffering from mental retardation. This news significantly exacerbated the situation as it is believed that this diagnosis will facilitate sending him back to Russia. Russian authorities are likely concerned that the public trial of a Russian soldier in Armenia will deeply damage the reputation of Russia’s military worldwide, especially in light of developments in Ukraine. But this attitude also fuels the outrage and mistrust towards Russia in Armenia and damages the bilateral relations between the two countries in general. Inadvertently, Russian authorities’ handling of the issue is pushing Armenians to demand that the strategic relationship with Russia should be reconsidered.

Consequently, the myth of Russia’s indispensability to Armenia has been damaged by the levers employed to intimidate Armenian society, a case in point being the broader capacities of Russian 102nd military base. A perception is growing that the murders and their cover-up are part of such a policy.

CONCLUSIONS: The incident in Gyumri has become the focal point for a wider discussion and reevaluation of Armenian-Russian relations in general and the appropriateness and implications of Russia’s military presence in Armenian in particular. The region’s geopolitics seriously impedes Armenia’s possibilities to seek alternative security partnerships aside from questionable assurances from Russia. Still, an active part of Armenian society including independent activists, several NGOs, and numerous ordinary citizens, favor stronger relations with NATO as well as the EU and its individual member states rather than with Russia and the Eurasian Union. It is argued that a stronger partnership with western organizations would build on mutual respect for interests and basic rights, which are lacking in the Armenian-Russian relationship.

The event in Gyumri gave rise to new challenges for Armenian authorities, risking to alienate them from Armenian society at large and forcing them to walk a fine line between domestic and foreign political imperatives. The core question for the future of Armenia’s relations with Russia is no longer Russia’s policy on Nagorno-Karabakh and its delivery of advanced offensive weaponry to Azerbaijan; but the Russian 102nd military base and its effects on political and economic development in Armenia.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Eduard Abrahamyan holds a PhD from Yerevan State University. He is currently based at the University of Westminster, and is a fellow of Policy Forum Armenia, Washington DC.

Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons

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