A Russian soldier who killed six members of an Armenian family after deserting his military base has been found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. But questions remain over where he will serve his sentence, setting the stage for another conflict between the two allies over Russia's increasingly contentious military presence in Armenia.
The soldier, Valeriy Permyakov, wandered off the 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia's second city, last January 12, broke into the house of the Avetsiyan family and shot six of them to death. He was captured trying to cross the border into Turkey.
The case shocked Armenia and led to unprecedented protests in Gyumri and Yerevan against the Russian military presence in the country. The Russian presence is largely welcomed in Armenia, as protection against Turkey and Azerbaijan, but lately there has been increasing resentment of Russia's heavyhanded behavior in Armenia. Russia wanted to try Permyakov in a military court on the base, but the protests led Moscow to back down and allow him to be tried in an Armenian court.
Now the conflict could turn to where Permyakov serves his sentence. The judge, apparently contrary to standard procedure, declined to say where he would be sent. Some Armenian media reported that a deal is in the works to exchange Permyakov for an Armenian prisoner currently serving time in Russia.
A screenshot of a video released by the State Security Service of Georgia, showing the questioning of a suspect alleged to have plotted to blow up a gas pipeline between Russia and Armenia.
Georgia's security services have arrested five men they claim were planning to blow up a gas pipeline between Russia and Armenia, setting off speculation about who could have been behind the alleged plot.
The State Security Service of Georgia announced that it had broken up the plot and released a video showing the explosives they seized, the accused men being taken into custody and questioned, and schemes of the attempted plan. Two others were also arrested in connection with the plot, a police officer accused of "abuse of power" and someone accused of not reporting the plot.
So the question immediately became: who would want to blow up the pipeline? Taken together, Russia and Armenia -- the likely targets of the plot -- have plenty of foes. At a press conference, the authorities alluded to an intriguing Ukraine connection. From Civil.ge:
One of the journalists at the briefing asked the State Security Service official if the arrested men had “links to Ukraine” – the journalist said that his question was stemming from a post on a social media by one of the Georgian volunteer fighters in Ukraine, who wrote that their supporters had been arrested in Georgia.
An investigator from the State Security Service, Savle Motiashvili, responded: “According to available information, one of the arrested men was visiting Ukraine often, but it is not yet clear whether this criminal group was directed from Ukraine.”
Soldiers from Kazakhstan take part in the opening ceremony of "Cooperation-2016," the CSTO military exercises taking part near the borders of Estonia and Latvia. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Russian military exercises near its western borders have become de rigeur over the last couple of years, as tension between Russia and NATO has spiked. But exercises that kicked off this week are novel in that Russia has brought along its allies from the Caucasus and Central Asia, which have for the most part sought to avoid getting drawn into Russia's conflict with the West.
The exercise kicked off August 16 in the Pskov oblast, which borders Estonia and Latvia. About 5,000 Russian soldiers are taking part, along with about 1,000 from the other countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
These exercises, under the rubric "Cooperation," are the annual cornerstone of the CSTO military exercise program. But there are some new twists this time. For the first time in the history of the exercises, Russia's ambassador to NATO Aleksandr Grushko is observing them. "Obviously, in the situation where NATO countries are pursuing a course of military containment of Russia, we have to undertake efforts to ensure that Russia's safety is secured," he said at a press conference there. "I'm sure that the NATO countries are carefully following" the CSTO exercises, he added. "The art of war is an extremely competitive field."
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev hosts his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for tea at his house. (photo: president.az)
The presidents of Russia, Iran, and Azerbaijan met in Baku this week, for the first time in this trilateral format, part of a week of heavy diplomatic activity that highlighted the shifting international relations around the South Caucasus.
The Baku meeting took place on Monday, and was taken on the initiative of Azerbaijan. The top agenda item was a railroad project that could connect Russia and Eastern Europe to the Persian Gulf.
That project would bring not only economic benefits to the three countries, but could be a geostrategic boon for Azerbaijan, as well, said Zaur Shiriyev, a Baku-based political analyst. He noted that this project would compete with another Russia-initiated North-South railroad project, that would go from Russia through Abkhazia, Georgia, and Armenia.
"This transport corridor bypasses Armenia, thereby eliminating the possibility of reopening the Russian-Georgian railway though Abkhazia, or any kind of discussion that was used a threat [against] Baku," Shiriyev said in an email interview with The Bug Pit. He noted that that Armenia project also could have competed with another Azerbaijani rail priority, the currently under-construction Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway that will connect Azerbaijan to Turkey and Europe.
Police surround one of the two Yerevan gunmen who decided to surrender to law enforcement on July 26.
New hostages were taken in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, on July 27 as an armed standoff between police and gunmen entered its tenth day. Despite the surrender of two of the gunmen, with street support for the group’s defiance of the government persisting, the crisis shows no sign of ending soon.
Officials said that the anti-government militants holed up in the city’s Erebuni police station seized four medical personnel dispatched by the health ministry this morning to treat gunmen wounded by an exchange of gunfire with police late last night.
A representative of the fringe opposition political group to which the gunmen belong, Founding Parliament, categorically denied that the men, mostly Karabakh war veterans, have taken any more hostages.
“The guys aren’t holding anyone as a hostage. They only want the medical presence there to be continuous and . . . for another brigade of doctors to rotate with this brigade,” Founding Parliament member Alek Enigomshian told reporters, RFE/RL’s Armenian service reported.
One policeman and two insurgents -- the gunmen’s most prominent leader, Pavlik Manukian, and his son, Aram -- suffered serious injuries in the overnight shootout and were hospitalized.
The surrender of another two members of the armed group early this morning created a prospect for resolution of the nerve-wracking drama, but the fresh hostage-taking situation brought the drama back to square one.
Russian politicians and state media sounded sharp alarm about the July 15 military-coup attempt in Turkey, Moscow's traditional regional rival, with some calling for "responsible organs" to come to the rescue of Russian citizens in Turkey. By contrast, officials in the South Caucasus, which borders directly on Turkey, expressed much greater caution .
The failed coup attempt led to the deaths of 1,661 people, and the injury of 1,440, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced at an afternoon briefing on July 16 in the Turkish capital, Ankara. Some 2,839 armed-forces personnel allegedly involved in the coup-plot have now been arrested, he said, according to Turkey's official Anadolu Agency.
Yet even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the coup had been put down, Russia’s state-run TASS news agency led with a statement from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that “we should undertake all measures for the defense of the interests of our citizens, and also our companies, our entities . . . “ in Turkey.
What measures, if any, were under consideration is not clear, but Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Alexander Romanovich, citing alleged bombing by Turkish military planes, earlier in the morning of July 16 called for "our responsible organs" to organize the immediate evacuation of all Russian citizens from Turkey.
Shortly after the explosions, hundreds of travelers from nearby countries checked in as safe on Facebook, underscoring the facility’s role as the region’s ultimate layover point. A place where rabbis and mullahs hang out in one lounge, Slavs snap up perfumes and purses at duty-free stores, and Georgians seem to permanently hold court in Starbucks, IST is the world’s third busiest airport and a veritable melting pot.
For many, it is much more than that.
“I spent endless hours there, watching people and munching on that free rahat lokum [Turkish delight],” one Azerbaijani businesswoman, Aygul, who passed through Istanbul two days before the attack, said via Facebook Messenger. “You sit there, look at all these people from everywhere and all the world’s differences seem so small and unimportant.”
Canadian artist Melanie Mehrer wrote Tamada Tales that, on the night of the attack, she had been drawing at an airport Starbucks when two Pakistani men, artists en route to an exhibit in Moscow, noticed her work and struck up a conversation. “We spent a good hour gabbing about art, Islam, Islamic Art, politics, weird stories in our countries' news, what it feels like to feel connected and rooted in your own culture . . .or not. “
For Georgians like Zurab Tatanashvili, an assistant professor of social work at Tbilisi State University, Istanbul airport became synonymous with a door to the West after the Soviet Union imploded in 1991. “Many other Georgians and I first went to the West through that airport and the West came here through it as well,” he commented by phone.
The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Serzh Sargsyan and Ilham Aliyev, meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg. (photo: kremlin.ru)
Last month, Azerbaijan appeared to have made a significant concession in its struggle to regain its lost territory of Nagorno Karabakh: it agreed to expand the international mission monitoring the conflict. But Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, newly returned from Moscow where he discussed the plan with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, is now walking back that promise.
Armenia, as well as the United States, had long pushed for strengthening the monitoring mission, run by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, because the understaffed, underresourced mission is unable to determine who is to blame for the increasingly common ceasefire violations. Azerbaijan, however, had previously argued that increasing monitoring would only serve to solidify a status quo it saw as illegitimate: an Armenian occupation of its land.
It wasn't clear why Azerbaijan had agreed to the concession, but an OSCE statement after last month's meeting in Vienna said the two sides agreed to implement an "investigative mechanism." It wasn't specified what that mechanism would be, but Armenians and other have pushed for devices that could record the origin of gunshots.
Armenia’s first-ever smart phone arrived in stores on June 6, as the latest result of the country's ongoing ambition to become the South Caucasus' high-tech capital.
The debut of Armphone, a touchscreen, Android cell phone, made Armenia the second ex-Soviet republic after Russia to foray into the smartphone-manufacturing industry. The maker, a joint American-Armenian venture, Technology & Science Dynamics (TSD), has created an Android-run tablet, too, called Armpad.
Armphone features a 5.1-inch, full HD-screen and a price for between $100-$300, depending on features, according to one news report. (TSD itself does not specify a retail price.)
The combination of an affordable price and national pride makes the manufaturers confident of sales success. TSD used the motto "It is time for Armenian products" in its promotion for the phones, which, it claims, "will satisfy the pickiest of customers."
"The buyers will be pleasantly surprised by the choice of ringtones based on music pieces by famous Armenian composers," the company said.
A country of some 3.3 million, Armenia has been banking heavily on developing a high-tech industry to jumpstart its modest, predominantly agricultural-and-service-based, $10-billion economy.
Repercussions from the "four-day war" with Azerbaijan in April continue to resonate in Armenia, with several senior officials arrested on corruption charges and one prominent political figure accusing the government of "deceiving" Armenians about their military capabilities.
Three security officials were arrested on Monday. “They were arrested for different criminal charges. They are suspected of various wrongdoings. In one case accepting poor quality supplied goods, in another case, according to preliminary data, procurements with exaggerated expenses,” said Sona Truzyan, a government spokesman, as reported by commonspace.eu.
This follows the firing of three other senior Ministry of Defense and armed forces officials at the end of April, also amid various corruption-related investigations. All this is in reaction to the results of fighting in early April in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, which resulted in the greatest number of casualties since a ceasefire between the two sides was signed in 1994, and during which Azerbaijan for the first time since then captured some new territory.
Further underscoring Yerevan's desire to shake things up, President Serzh Sargsyan replaced one of the fired MoD officials with a relative outsider, David Pakhchanian, as Deputy Defense Minister Chairman of the State Military Industrial Committee.