A signboard welcoming travellers into breakaway Nagorno Karabakh proclaims a “Free Artsakh” (the traditional Armenian name for the region), but on Saturday a group of Armenian activists learned the limit to that freedom.
The topic is controversial, and, apparently, not one that Karabakh’s de-facto leader, Bako Sahakian, a onetime KGB employee, is eager to debate publicly. Particularly amidst an uptick in security-concerns, as fatal clashes with Azerbaijani forces continue.
Sahakian earlier had warned that the motorcade could bring undesired consequences to Karabakh.
But participants charge it was the Karabakhi police who did that.
As the motorcade on January 31 drove toward Karabakh, video footage filmed by Founding Parliament activists showed uniformed police demanding documents (claiming they were “checking for a raid”), and then starting to attack both the cars and their occupants.
On an overhead ridge, masked men with automatic rifles closely watched the clash, while various men in civilian clothes surfaced to join in. One of the witnesses, Aram Hakobian, claimed to Aravot.am that gunshots had been fired, and that the uniformed men had thrown the Armenian flags on the ground and stomped on them.
A Russian soldier who allegedly massacred an Armenian family is expected to stand trial in Armenia, not Russia. Armenian General Prosecutor Gevorg Kostanian on January 15 made this clear to outraged citizens, who were worried that Armenia would defer justice to its Russian big brother.
The January 12 slaughter of six people in the northwestern town of Gyumri, the site of Russia’s 102nd army base, could not have come at a worse time for Armenia. Just ten days previously, its controversial membership in the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union had become official. The sign-on took place amidst heavy criticism of Yerevan’s economic and security dependence on Russia.
The Gyumri murder now has put Armenia’s policies toward Russia further to the test. Angry Gyumri residents have demanded the handover of the alleged culprit, Private Valery Permyakov, and accused the authorities of mollycoddling Moscow.
Russia’s ambassador to Armenia, Ivan Volynkin, appears aware of the risks of such sentiments. In January 15 comments to the state-financed Russian news outlet Sputnik (picked up by Armenian news outlets), he expressed condolences for the tragedy, but emphasized that “this problem must not be politicized."
"Crime has no nationality, especially in this case," he emphasized.
Armenia’s small Heritage Party, the most outspoken of Armenian political party against economic integration with Russia, so far has called only for a transparent investigation into the crime.
The Russian soldier accused of killing six members of an Armenian family was captured and will be prosecuted under Russian jurisdiction, in spite of the fact that the base agreement between the two countries appears to give Armenia that right.
Valery Permyakov, a Russian conscript, deserted his guard post at the 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia, and shot six members of the Avetsiyan family while they slept. About 24 hours, he was captured near the Armenia-Turkey border and reportedly confessed to the crime.
Russian border guards patrol the border between Armenia and Turkey, and it was officers from that force who arrested Permyakov. Armenian authorities announced shortly thereafter that he would be prosecuted by Russia, not by them:
“Valery Permyakov suspected of the crime is a Russian citizen and has been placed under the control of Russian law enforcement agencies, that is under the Russian jurisdiction. Thus, handing over Valery Permyakov to Armenian law enforcement bodies is not discussed considering the ban enshrined in paragraph 1 of Article 61 of the Russian Constitution, which speculates that the Russian citizen cannot be handed over to another country," according to a press release from the office of the General Prosecutor of Armenia.
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.
A Russian soldier is suspected of killing six members of an Armenian family after deserting his guard post.
In the early morning hours of January 12, six members of the Avetisyan family were shot and killed in their home. The suspect, Valery Permyakov, was a conscript soldier serving at Russia's 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia's second city. Thus far, the authorities have not explained what connection Permyakov had to the family. By evening Armenia time, Permyakov remained at large.
Permyakov's boots, imprinted with his name, were reportedly found at the scene of the crime. Permyakov is from Chita and had earlier served at a military base there, where he tried to escape, one of his fellow soldiers there told newspaper Moskovskiy Komsomolets, adding that Permyakov was a "normal, friendly guy."
Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu called his Armenian counterpart Seyran Ohanian and expressed his "deep condolences for the family and loved ones of those killed," emphasized that "nothing can justify this kind of violence against innocent people," and promised "all possible help and support of the family of those killed," RIA Novosti reported. Russia's MoD also formed a commission, headed by First Deputy Minister Arkady Bakhin, to investigate the crime.
Armenia has already retaliated against Azerbaijan for the downing of a military helicopter last month, Armenia's defense minister has said, without saying what the retaliation amounted to.
The Mi-24 helicopter was shot down November 12 near the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh; Armenia says it was on a training flight, Azerbaijan says it had crossed the line of contact and was planning an attack.
Armenia immediately promised to retaliate, but it wasn't clear how. And on December 23, Armenian Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian said it has already happened: "A disproportionate response to the Azerbaijani side has been given, part of the information about the operation was given to the public. However, it wasn't appropriate to release all of the information."
The most significant military incident since the shootdown that was partially reported was a heavy exchange of fire, including relatively rare mortar attacks, in early December. The de facto Nagorno Karabakh government claimed that five to seven Azerbaijani soldiers were killed, though that wasn't independently confirmed. Still, even that would seem to not meet the standard of retaliation that Armenia had been promising.
After three years of negotiations, Kyrgyzstan has signed up to join the Moscow-led Eurasian Union, a protectionist post-Soviet economic club that some fear will allow the Kremlin to reassert political influence in its former backyard. But in what has become a tradition, Kyrgyzstan’s actual accession will be delayed yet again.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev signed on the dotted line at a Moscow meeting of the Eurasian Economic Council December 23 along with his counterparts from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia.
Atambayev was in high spirits after signing, waxing lyrical about the benefits of regional integration.
“I’d like to emphasize that today is December 23. I am a person that sometimes lends a lot of credence to things, dates, signs of destiny, lets say. Yesterday, December 22, was the shortest day and the longest night [of the year] and today, December 23 is the day when light starts to defeat night. It seems very significant. I am confident that even in these difficult times, things will be a lot easier for all of us if we are friendly with one another and help one another,” Atambayev said, to what looked, on camera, like sniggers from Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko.
More importantly, Atambayev confirmed that Kyrgyzstan would not be ready for full membership in the Eurasian Economic Union – which fellow aspirant Armenia will join on January 1 – until the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s 1945 victory over Germany on May 9. All year officials have said Kyrgyzstan will join on January 1, when the Customs Union becomes the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
Russian President Vladimir Putin has modestly understated the number of military bases that Russia operates outside its borders, apparently forgetting about the several bases Russia has in the Caucasus and elsewhere.
In his big annual press conference on December 18, the BBC's John Simpson asked Putin about the breakout of a "new Cold War" and Russia's aggressive moves around its Western borders. Putin said that it was in fact the West who was aggressive:
We have basically only two bases abroad, and those are in terroristically dangerous directions: in Kyrgyzstan after militants from Afghanistan entered that country, at the reqyest of the Kyrgyz authorities, then President Akayev, and in Tajikistan -- also on the border with Afghanistan. I think you also would be interested in everything being stable there, too.
American bases are all over the globe. And you want to say that we're acting aggressively? Does that make sense? What are American armed forces, including tactical nuclear weapons, doing in Europe? What are they doing there?
Nettlesome neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan are in a tug-of-war over pretty much everything, from disputed lands to, most recently, a loaf of bread. Armenia says it has succeeded in claiming something of a cultural copyright to lavash, a regionally popular thin bread, while Azerbaijan’s fierce attempts to thwart Armenian claims to the flatbread have fallen, well, flat.
Over Azerbaijani objections, UNESCO late last week did grant the bread a spot on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage as an expression of Armenian culture. But the UN agency did so with a disclaimer that lavash is shared by communities in the region and beyond” and that “the inscription does not imply exclusivity.”
One Armenian media outlet claims that UNESCO committee purportedly chose the careful wording after Azerbaijan raised objections during UNESCO’s November 24-28 meeting in Paris. But the wording was enough for both countries to celebrate victory.
Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced that it has prevented Armenia from claiming the bread as its own. “Justice has prevailed in this matter,” said Culture and Tourism Minister Abulfas Garayev. “ UNESCO’s decision says that lavash is made all across the region and is not an exclusively Armenian bread.”
Armenian military officials say they have carried out a special operation to recover the bodies of three crewmembers of a helicopter shot down by Azerbaijan more than a week before. But their Azerbaijani counterparts say that the reports of a rescue operation were a disinformation operation.
The Armenian Mi-24 was shot down November 12 by Azerbaijani anti-aircraft fire; Armenia says it was conducting a training mission and Azerbaijan said it was preparing to attack.
The bodies had remained near the crash site, in no man's land near the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. Earlier this week, international monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe tried to visit the site and were unable.
On November 22, the de facto ministry of defense of Nagorno Karabakh announced that a special operation had recovered the bodies: "Taking into account official statements from the Azerbaijani side and the complete lack of reason from that side, the armed forces of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic were forced to carry out a special operation with the aim of ascertaining the fate of the helicopter's crew," the ministry said in a statement. Two Azerbaijani soldiers were killed in the operation, while the Armenian side suffered no losses, the statement said.
CSTO military officials watch a demonstration of a Russian military surveillance system at a meeting in Yekaterinburg. (photo: CSTO)
Russia is planning to create a unified air defense system with all of its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, senior Russian officials said during a meeting of the organization this week in Yekaterinburg.
Russia has talked about creating a joint system for years; the Commonwealth of Independent States formally agreed to work on it in 1995. Progress has been slow since then, but a joint system is in place between Russia and Belarus, there are bilateral efforts underway to work on joint systems with Armenia and Kazakhstan, while discussions with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have for the most part been just that.
But now Russia is getting serious, said retired Lieutenant General Alexander Gorkov, former head of Russia's air defense forces, in an interview with Svobodnaya Pressa. "We see that reports periodically appear in the media about the creation of air defense systems on a bilateral basis, in particular with Armenia and Kazakhstan, but clearly these are only announcements and intentions, they're only now starting to talk about practical steps."