Russia is negotiating with Armenia to supply the latter with advanced Iskander-M missiles, a potentially substantial boost to Armenian defenses against a potential Azerbaijani attack. News about the ongoing negotiations was leaked to both the Armenian and Russian press, and the timing of the leak suggests an effort to tamp down anti-Russian sentiment in ongoing street protests in Yerevan.
"The contract isn't signed yet, negotiations are still continuing," a source "in the military-technical cooperation sphere" told Russian news agency Tass. A source "close to the ruling Republican Party of Armenia" told the same thing to Armenian newspaper Zhamanak.
The missiles could be acquired under a $200 million loan for arms purchases that Russia offered to Armenia last week and which Armenia's parliament ratified in an extraordinary session on July 2. "We are going to acquire weaponry of a new type, which until now has not been seen in the Armenian armed forces," said Ara Nazarian, Armenia's deputy defense minister, in reference the loan.
That loan was part of a series of concessions that Russia made to Armenia, including ceding to Armenian jurisdiction the case of a Russian soldier who killed seven members of an Armenian family. The news of the Iskander-Ms would seem to be yet another element of this effort to appease Armenian public sentiment.
Many eyes, especially in Moscow, are on Yerevan for hints that the resistance to higher electricity prices will turn into another post-Soviet revolution with geopolitical implications. But the wait for Molotov cocktails to start flying is proving meaningless.
Rather, now that the risk of police intervention has faded, the mass protests are again looking like a national festival, with the mostly young demonstrators breaking into song and dance on Yerevan’s central Bahgramian Avenue that they have blocked for days now.
The choice of weapons includes the traditional Armenian circle dance, Kochari, performed to the pounding of drums and shrieks of the zurna, a folk oboe. Others do a bit of sports. One morning earlier, protesters used the space between a line of police and a barricade of recycling bins as a soccer pitch. The demonstrators also worked together to keep the avenue clean.
The government, in some ways, also appears to be performing a circle dance of its own. Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian on June 30 said that the state would use extrabudgetary funds to cover the August 1 price-hike for consumers, but claimed the explanation would come later, RFE/RL's Armenian service reported.
Valery Permyakov, a Russian conscript soldier suspected of killing six members of a family in Gyumri, Armenia, in a photo released by the Armenian authorities.
Russia has agreed to let Armenian courts try a Russian soldier accused of murdering seven members of an Armenian family after deserting Russia's major military base in the country. The move is a major concession by Moscow, and comes as large-scale street protests in Yerevan against Armenia's Russian-owned electricity company have been gathering strength.
The soldier, Valery Permyakov, walked off Russia's 102nd military base in Gyumri on January 12, walked into the nearby home of the Avetsiyan family and opened fire; six died immediately and a seventh, a six-month-old baby, died later in the hospital. The case outraged Armenians and led to unprecedented protests against the base.
From the beginning, Armenia and Russia have disagreed about who should be able to try Permyakov: Armenia wanted him tried in Armenian courts, while Russia wanted him to be tried by a Russian military court, albeit on Armenian soil.
On June 26, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan met with a Russian government delegation to discuss energy fees, the issue that sparked the Yerevan protests. But the scope of the discussions was apparently wider than that, and Sargsyan's office issued a surprise announcement after the meeting:
When a Russian TV reporter went live from the Yerevan protests last night, a poster behind her read “Russia 24: Go to hell,” to use a mellow translation of the original choice of words.
The crowd gathered around the journalist was angry that Russian media draws parallels between their protest against higher electricity fees from a Russian-owned power company and Ukraine’s pro-Western uprising in 2013.
“People here do not want the word Yerevan to be used in the same sentence with Kyiv,” the LifeNews journalist explained.
Igor Morozov, a member of Russia’s legislative upper house, the Federation Council, opined on June 24 that Yerevan’s protests carbon-copy the build-up to EuroMaidan, and will end in a coup if “the nation’s President Serzh Sargsyan does not learn lessons from Ukraine’s Maidan and does not draw the right conclusions," RIA Novosti reported.
And, in the time-honored fashion of Russian politicians, Morozov is eager to make sure he does. Morozov and his colleague in the lower house, the State Duma, Valery Rishkin, advised Sargsyan to boot US Ambassador Richard Mills out of Armenia.
In Russian political folklore, US embassies in Ukraine, Armenia and elsewhere in the post-Soviet world work as regional headquarters of an anti-Kremlin conspiracy thought up in Washington, DC.
As the tense standoff between protesters and police in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, continues, Moscow is keeping a cautious eye on events. Armenia is Russia’s only sure ally in the South Caucasus, and, the Kremlin, no doubt with Ukraine on its mind, wants to be sure of its friend.
“Armenia is our closest partner… Of course, we closely follow the developments and hope the situation will be settled in the near future in strict accordance with the law,” Public Radio of Armenia quoted Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying.
Russian media continues to look at the “Maidan-ability” of the demonstrations; in other words, if the protests against a 16-percent hike in electricity prices can become a real threat to Armenia’s government and its close alliance with Moscow.
Although some anti-Moscow (and anti-Putin) notes were sounded at the Electric Yerevan protest, protesters do not appear to be calling for grand shifts in Armenia’s geo-strategy.
Armenian police made 237 arrests on June 23 after roughly breaking up a Yerevan sit-in against a planned fee hike by the country’s Russian-owned power distribution network. The protest appears to be serving as a multiplier for longstanding economic grievances against the government of President Serzh Sargsyan.
Despite the police pushback, protesters have announced on Facebook that they will attempt another demonstration this evening, ArmeniaNow.com reported.
Led by a group called No to Plunder, the initial demonstration, a three-day sit-in, targeted a 16-percent increase in power prices by Electricity Networks of Armenia, a company owned by Russia’s Kremlin-friendly Inter RAO UES. That price increase, introduced on June 17 amidst protests, replaced plans for a 40-percent hike.
But the move did nothing to assuage many Armenians frustrated by scanty incomes, insufficient employment and perceived rampant corruption.
Protesters, en route to the presidential office, declined an offer on June 22 to meet with Sargsyan to discuss their grievances. Faced by police, last night they headed for a central thoroughfare, Baghramian Avenue. Riot police and water canons that remained at the ready moved in on the group at dawn.
Moscow is driven by the principle of "parity" in its arms supplies to rivals Armenia and Azerbaijan, a senior Russian defense official has said, in comments that are likely to further erode Armenia's confidence in its ostenible military ally, Russia.
"I know that the sale of arms by Russian manufacturers is carried out by the decision of the Russian leadership taking into account the necessity of observing parity," Nikolay Bordyuzha, the secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, said at a press conference June 18. "In addition to the arms Azerbaijan buys, arms are delivered and sold to Armenia in quite large quantities. And that allows a sort of parity to be maintained."
Armenia is a member of the CSTO, a post-Soviet defense bloc, while Azerbaijan is not. The CSTO has been dogged by doubts about its effectiveness, but Armenia is the most loyal member, seeing the alliance as a instrument of Russian support against Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan has been extravagantly rearming itself with the aim of retaking Nagorno Karabakh, its territory that it lost to Armenian forces in a war in the early 1990s. The fact that Azerbaijan has been making many of those purchases from Russia has been causing increasing discomfort in Yerevan. Earlier this year the scale of those sales was revealed for the first time, with Russia supplying a whopping 85 percent of Azerbaijan's total weapons acquisitions.
Armenians hold complex, at times contradictory views toward the Russian military base in their country, a new opinion poll has found.
When asked whether it was "acceptable for a foreign state or institution to ensure Armenia’s national security," only 17 percent of Armenians found it acceptable. But then, asked if they "find the presence of any other state’s or structure’s military bases in Armenia acceptable or unacceptable?" 55 percent found it acceptable. Of those that found the presence of a foreign base acceptable, the greatest number of respondents (38 percent) said it was justified to protect against attack by Azerbaijan or Turkey, while 25 percent said "security guarantees" -- probably a broader version of the same answer.
Those responses are hard to reconcile with one another, but probably represent the ambivalence many Armenians feel toward the Russian military presence in their country as a necessary evil.
Russia operates the 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia's second city, and has about 5,000 soldiers stationed there. In 2010 Armenia agreed to allow the base to stay until 2044 and while Armenians have generally acquiesced to the base's presence, unprecedented protests against the base broke out in January after a Russian soldier abandoned the base and killed seven members of a local family in their home.
In a smack-down to Georgia and Ukraine’s European aspirations, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on May 21 that the two countries should not have expectations for a visa-free regime with the EU anytime soon.
Merkel’s comments came amid the European Union’s summit with its EU-curious neighbors in the Latvian capital, Riga. In the run-up to the summit, it was clear that the EU would not be granting a visa-waiver at this time, but Georgia and Ukraine expected to make significant progress toward such a waiver, as well as toward integration with the bloc.
As of early evening, Tbilisi had not yet responded officially to Merkel’s remarks. In comments earlier in the day in Riga, however, Georgian Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili told Georgian reporters that Georgia has met with flying colors most of the EU’s requirements for a visa-free regime, and that it is “only a step “ away from heading toward receiving that status.
Kyiv’s reaction was not immediately available.
Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova are the main EU-enthusiasts among the six ex-Soviet republics courted by the EU under its Eastern Partnership Program. Moldova, Ukraine's southwestern neighbor, received its visa-free deal in 2014.
After the last Eastern Partnership in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Ukraine had pulled away from signing an association agreement with the EU, helping to set in motion a domestic conflict over Ukraine’s leadership, the bloc arrived at this next summit in Riga with far less enthusiasm for integrating the countries and to engage Russia in a full-on competition for the region.
Kazakhstan soldiers in southern Tajikistan for CSTO joint military exercises. (photo: CSTO)
Russia and several of its allies have completed joint military exercises on the Tajikistan Afghanistan border, which they say was necessitated by the worsening situation in northern Afghanistan.
The drills of the Collective Security Treaty Organization began last week and the first step was deploying the 2,500 troops, without prior notice, to the exercise site in Tajikistan's Khatlon province. According to the scenario of the exercises, "the situation on the Tajik-Afghan border seriously deteriorated. Armed groups invaded the territory of Tajikistan from the territory of Afghanistan. The Tajikistan armed forces together with other security structures carry out military operations to repel the invasion."
Military units from the various CSTO member states carried out individual tasks: Tajikistani aircraft carried out aerial reconnaissance and identified the position of "terrorist groups" numbering 700 people.
Then an Armenian special forces company reconnoitered the site on the ground, traveling with modified Nissan pickup trucks armed with machine guns. Then, various special forces units from Belarus, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan advanced to "capture the militants' field commander and secure the withdrawal of the Armenian reconnaissance troops."
In the final stage, Russian and Kazakhstani bomber jets carried out air strikes on the militant positions, and drones identified targets for further artillery strikes.