Early on the morning of 12 January 2015, conscript Valery Permyakov is thought to have deserted the 102nd Russian military base in Gyumri, Armenia, and made his way to the local home of the Avetisyan family. Here, Permyakov allegedly murdered Sergei Avetisyan (53), his wife Asmik (55), their daughter Aida (35), their son Armen (34), their daughter-in-law Araksiya (24), granddaughter Asmik (2), and grandson Sergei (six months). Although initially there were hopes that the grandson would survive, following a serious operation, the child died on 19 January.
The sheer brutality of the killings and lack of legal clarity led to protests in the northern city, including demands for the removal of the 102nd military base from Armenian territory. The situation, however, is rather more complicated than these demands can account for, and that is because the 102nd Russian military base at Gyumri is a key element in the regional balance of power, particularly in the unregulated Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The motives behind the killing of the Avetisyan family are still unclear. While the investigation tries to understand what exactly led to the murder of the Avetisyan family, local observers look to the suspect’s religious background in search of answers: Permyakov’s father is a pastor in the Church of Faith, Hope, Love, in Balei, Chita. The head of the church in Chita, Andrei Subbotin, confirmed that Permyakov’s father is a pastor in the church, but did not confirm whether Permyakov was a member himself.
Local observers look to the suspect’s religious background in search of answers
After discovering that Permyakov had left sentry duty in the early hours of the morning, Russian military police started searching for the soldier. They were yet to hear of the murder of the Avetisyan family.
Meanwhile, the Gyumri police were first notified of the murder at midday on 12 January. After a preliminary search of the scene, the Armenian police formed a special team to investigate the crime. With the identity of the main suspect established by a uniform left at the scene, the Armenian police began searching for Permyakov roughly two hours later.
The Russian military had begun searching for Permyakov eight to nine hours prior to their Armenian counterparts, and at midnight on 13 January, Russian border guards arrested Permyakov as he tried to cross the Turkish border. He was then transferred to the custody of the 102nd Russian military base in Gyumri.
At 11am that same day, reports emerged that Permyakov had begun to give evidence, and two hours later, he allegedly confessed to the crime. Later that day, the General Prosecutor’s Office of Armenia stated that, given Permyakov was being held within the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation, there was no question of transferring Permyakov to the Armenian authorities: according to the Russian constitution, the suspect could not be handed over to another state.
Digital media, however, were reporting the fourth article of the agreement, signed in 1997, regulating the presence of the 102nd military base in Armenia, which states clearly that Armenian laws and institutions take precedence when it comes to offences committed by soldiers serving at the Russian military base. According to this agreement, Permyakov should have been transferred to the Armenian authorities.
A similar demand was eventually put forward by participants in the protests that took place in both Gyumri and Yerevan, which peaked on 14 and 15 January. The demonstrations took place outside the Russian military base, and Russian consulate in Gyumri, as well as the Russian embassy in Yerevan.
On 15 January, protesters clashed with the Armenian police, with more than two dozen casualties on both sides. At the height of the demonstrations in Gyumri, more than 1,500 people marched in protest, and more than 200 in Yerevan. Among the protesters, certain people even went so far as to demand the removal of the Russian military base from Armenia. However, such a radical move was far from the principal demand of the protesters, who were more concerned with the hand-over of Permyakov to Armenian law enforcement.
Guided only by press reports, the protesters were not aware that, in addition to the fourth article of the military base agreement mentioned above, there is also a fifth – which discusses exceptions to the previous article, whereby the soldier should be handed over to Russian Federation jurisdiction. In particular, when it is a matter of a military offence. The suspect’s desertion with a weapon, which preceded the alleged murder of the Avetisyan family, is, of course, an offence under military law. Permyakov’s arrest by Russian military also plays a role in the situation.
Massive protests flare over massacre by Russian soldier. Image by PAN Photo via Demotix. CC
Armenian-Russian relations have been tested before. In 1999, two Russian soldiers opened fire on a Gyumri market, killing two people and wounding many others. In that instance, in accordance with the fourth article of the military base agreement, the arrest and court proceedings were carried out by the Armenian authorities.
A statement by Armenia’s General Prosecutor Gevorg Konstanyan, late on 15 January, only fuelled the fire. Konstanyan stated that he would apply for Permyakov’s transfer to Armenian law enforcement, yet only two days earlier, the General Prosecutor’s office had already stated that they were not even considering applying for the suspect’s transfer.
Later, on 22 January, Konstanyan suggested that, according to current agreements on joint border security, Russian border guards should have handed over Permyakov to the Armenian authorities. Naturally, these contradictory statements did not help diffuse the situation.
Contradictory statements did not help diffuse the situation.
Confusion and obfuscation
Meanwhile, people involved in the protests – partially under the influence of the press – came up with the following view of events:
Russian military should hand over Permyakov to Armenian law enforcement, but is
not doing so
2) If the Russian military fails to hand over Permyakov, then most likely it is preparing to remove him from the country (or already has done) and conceal the trial. As a result, Permyakov might avoid serious punishment.
Hence the strange demands of the protesters in Gyumri that they be allowed to visit Permyakov in jail, record that visit, and broadcast it on television.
The above interpretation of the agreement, based only on the fourth article, emerged in press coverage of the situation outside Armenia, starting from the US and Europe, and ending with the post-Soviet space and the Armenian diaspora.
In the end, it was representatives of the opposition and the church that managed to come between the protesters and the police in Gyumri – the regional head of the Armenian Apostolic Church Mikael Adzhapakhyan, and Martun Grigoryan, a member of parliament for the opposition party Prosperous Armenia, who played a decisive role in restraining aggression on the ground. Former chief military prosecutor and member of the Armenian National Congress Gagik Dzhangiryan also took part in stabilising the situation. On 15 January, Dzhangiryan outlined the main points of the Armenian-Russian military base agreement, and gave a clear legal interpretation of the events concerning the killing of the Avetisyan family.
While the parliamentary opposition condemned the crime and expressed its sympathies to the relatives of the deceased, it refused to politicise the situation, and requested that the Armenian law enforcement agencies co-operate with Russian Federation representatives. With the exception of Zharangutyun (Heritage) party, the opposition did not make any demands concerning the hand-over of Permyakov.
At the same time, the Armenian authorities revealed their lack of understanding of the situation. The General Prosecutor arrived in Gyumri four days after the crime was reported. President Serzh Sargsyan and Prime Minister Hovik Abramyan also distanced themselves from events, and started to react only on 19-20 January.
An olive branch
The situation took a new turn of events following a telephone call on 19 January between the Russian and Armenian presidents, which took place on the initiative of Vladimir Putin, who requested that Sargsyan communicate his deep regrets to the people of Armenia in connection with the murder of the Avetisyan family.
Armenian and Russian law enforcement bodies have now begun to work more closely together in investigating the crime. After the head of the Russian Federation Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin, visited Armenia, issues concerning the future of the investigation and trial were worked out as follows: while the investigation would be carried out by both sides, the prosecution’s final statement will be a joint one. The military tribunal or court will be carried out publicly in Gyumri by Russian representatives, and according to its laws (Permyakov is facing life imprisonment). Finally, the accused will carry out their sentence in the Russian prison system
The continuing line of conflict
The legal clarity achieved on 20-21 January, as well as the burial of the Avetisyan family, has led to a sense of relative stability concerning the tragedy in Gyumri, although a certain tension remains.
Alongside the tragedy in Gyumri, however, the situation on the line of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and the north-eastern border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has severely deteriorated. On the night of 19 January, for example, Armenian military units intercepted eight attempts to cross the border – far more than the previous record of two attempts in 24 hours.
Baku senses a deterioration in Armenian-Russian relations and is seeking to gain political concessions from Yerevan.
While several Armenian soldiers died during this period, official sources in Azerbaijan have made no comment. One can assume that Baku senses a possible deterioration in Armenian-Russian relations and is seeking to gain political concessions from Yerevan by force.
Apart from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, though, Azerbaijan possesses a far greater land border than Armenia, and is vulnerable to Iran on its southern border, and from other countries on the Caspian Sea. The second and fifth corps of the Azerbaijan army patrol the southern border with Iran.
Meanwhile, to the west, Armenia faces Turkey (a de-facto ally of Baku), which Yerevan restrains via its military alliance with Russia. While Azerbaijan, with its considerable military budget, is forced to protect its borders, Armenia and the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh Republic can concentrate – financially and militarily – on its eastern border precisely because of the 102nd Russian military base in Gyumri. As a result, popular demands for the removal of the 102nd military base from Armenian territory are unlikely to be heeded.
Standfirst image: Gyumri massacre victim Sergei Avetisyan laid to rest. (c) PHOTOLURE News Agency / Demotix.