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.
Offline, the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh may be outside of Baku’s control, but, online, Azerbaijan seems to have reclaimed the disputed land. Azerbaijani officials are boasting of allegedly having convinced Facebook to strip the separatist territory’s page of its verified status, which denotes that the page is authentic.
This reported victory, preceded by an avalanche of complaints from Azerbaijani users, is nothing to sneeze at in the South Caucasus, where Facebook is by far the most popular social network. It is also often the prime online venue for social activism and political debate.
And yet, Baku’s victory was not complete. Though the "Nagorno-Karabakh Republic" page is not accessible, pages using the region’s Armenian name (Artsakh) and calling for recognition of its independence remain intact.
Facebook, which has faced flak before over its page-decisions, has not yet commented officially on the downgrading of the breakaway region's page.
But Facebook is not the only part of the virtual world in which Azerbaijan has been asserting its internationally recognized right to Karabakh. In the past, the country engaged in toponymic arguments with Google for using “pro-Armenian” place-names in its maps, and with MSN for describing Karabakh as an independent entity in its weather listings.
In a television-drama project likely to create a stir in the Caucasus, Russian film-industry tsar Nikita Mikhalkov plans to revisit the life and, most controversially, the death of the famous 19th century Russian writer and diplomat, Alexander Griboyedov.
The story of Griboyedov, best known for his pasquinade of Moscow’s aristocracy, Woe from Wit, makes for a perfect plot for a period-drama. His literary defiance of imperial Russia’s calcified upper crust, his marriage to a beautiful Georgian princess in Tiflis (Tbilisi) and his brutal murder in Tehran were all set during the tectonic geopolitical shifts of the early 19th century.
In Mikhalkov’s version of the story, Griboyedov, the tsar’s emissary to Tehran, is not killed by a lynch mob of Persians which, as is widely believed, massacred the entire staff of the Russian embassy to Persia in 1829. Mikhalkov claims he has it on good authority that the hero of his film fell prey to intrigues of the British as they strove to hem in Russia’s regional clout.
Armenia's chief prosecutor has formally asked his Russian counterpart to hand over a Russian soldier accused of killing seven members of a family outside Russia's military base in Armenia. The request was made just after the two sides apparently had agreed to try the soldier in a Russian military court at the base.
The Russian soldier, Valery Permyakov, is accused of killing seven members of the Avetsiyan family just after deserting his guard post at the 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia's second city, on January 12. Shortly afterwards the Armenian authorities announced that Permyakov would be tried under the Russian justice system, in spite of the fact that the base agreement seems to suggest he should be tried under Armenian jurisdiction. That sparked unprecedented protests in Gyumri and Yerevan by Armenians unhappy about how the case was being handled.
More than three weeks later, the back-and-forth jockeying between Russia and Armenia over the case continues, indicating that it remains the subject of delicate negotiations, with serious implications for Armenia's government stability and Armenia-Russia relations.
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.
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.
Armenia ranks third after Israel and Singapore as the world’s most militarized country relative to population and economy-size, according to a report released this week by a German-government-financed think-tank, the Bonn International Center for Conversion.
The Center’s Global Militarisation Index 2014 claims that the small Caucasus country of just under three million is the European continent’s most militarized nation. It measures militarization as the “weight of [a] military apparatus” “in relation to its society as a whole” — a standard that puts Armenia, given its small population, relatively weak economy and strong security concerns, at a potential statistical disadvantage.
Locked in a bitter land dispute with neighbor Azerbaijan over breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, Armenia spent $247 million on arms purchases in 2013. Its next-door arch-nemesis, oil-and-gas power Azerbaijan, has far outspent Armenia, forking out $3.4 billion on defense last year. But because of its larger economy (nearly eight times the size of Armenia’s) and more than threefold larger population, Azerbaijan landed in tenth place.
In terms of the volume and sophistication of its military gear, Azerbaijan may also be far in the lead, but Armenia has 17.9 soldiers and paramilitaries per 1,000 inhabitants, while Azerbaijan has 8.9, the report found.
Russia, with an economy and population that dwarf both Armenia and Azerbaijan, finished in fifth place, after Syria.
The study did not apparently take into account the effect of military alliances with other countries. Russia, which sells arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, has its only base in the South Caucasus in the northern Armenian town of Gyumri.
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.
A senior European diplomat has visited the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh to try to reduce tensions after Azerbaijani armed forces shot down an Armenian helicopter there last week.
Andrzej Kasprzyk, the Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson in Office, visited the de facto Karabakh capital of Stepanakert on November 17. Kasprzyk seems not to have made any public comments, but Armenian officials used the occasion of his visit to complain about what they called a muted international reaction and perceived "impunity" for Azerbaijan.
And Kasprzyk's visit itself became another point of contention between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenian officials said he would visit the site of the shootdown during his visit, but Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense said that was "another lie and speculation of the Armenian side." And indeed, when Kasprzyk visited the line of contact for a planned monitoring mission on November 18, he appears not to have gone to the crash site.
The site has remained closed to Armenian forces since the helicopter was downed on November 12; it still has not been ascertained whether all three of the aircraft's crew died in the crash. Likewise, there has yet to be any outside assessment of the claims of the opposing sides that the helicopter had crossed the line of contact and was preparing to attack Azerbaijani positions (as Baku says) or was on the Karabakh side of the line and was unarmed (as Yerevan and Stepanakert say).
An Armenian Mi-24 helicopter hit by Azerbaijani fire November 12, in a photo released by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense.
After Azerbaijani armed forces shot down an Armenian helicopter, probably the most significant military incident between the two sides in two decades, Armenian military and political figures have promised to retaliate.
The helicopter was shot down on November 12, near the line of contact between the two armed forces. Azerbaijan said the Mi-24 helicopter had crossed the line of contact and was planning to attack, Armenia said the aircraft remained on its side and was moreover unarmed. At least two of the helicopter's crew were killed (and some reports said all three crew members died).
The warnings of retaliation came almost immediately. "The consequences of this unprecedented escalation will be very painful for the Azerbaijani side," a spokesman for the Armenian Ministry of Defense said that day.
One small act of retaliation already took place: on November 13, the day after the helicopter was shot down and Azerbaijan declared the airspace over Karabakh "closed," Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan flew there anyway on a helicopter.
Karabakh's airspace "really is closed, but only to the Azerbaijan air forces, and they should have had the courage to finish the sentence," David Babayan, an adviser to the territory's de facto president, told RFE/RL.