As the investigation into the January 12 murder of the Avetisyan family (see EDM, January 16) continues, several top Armenian officials have admitted that the Russian side’s refusal to hand over Valery Permyakov, Russian soldier who is the main suspect in the case, contradicts existing Russo-Armenian agreements. Nonetheless, Prosecutor General Gevorg Kostanyan has not yet sent an inquiry to his Russian counterpart demanding that the investigation and trial of this case be held under Armenian jurisdiction. On January 15, Kostanyan’s promise to send such an inquiry was one of the main factors that helped to calm the mass protest in Gyumri. Meanwhile, the recent death of the six-month-old baby wounded in the January 12 attack has sparked renewed frustration among Armenian society.
On January 17, chief of police Vladimir Gasparyan told journalists that about two hours before Permyakov’s arrest by the Russian border guards, Armenian police had received information about his location close to the border with Turkey. Gasparyan added that, for him, “it did not matter who captured the suspect” (News.am, January 17). Gasparyan’s statement resulted in some suggestions that the police had deliberately allowed the Russians to arrest Permyakov in order to avoid a stronger embarrassment: whereby a prisoner arrested by the Armenian police is taken away by Russian security or law enforcement (Novaya Gazeta, January 20).
Yet, days later, Prosecutor General Kostanyan confirmed during parliamentary hearings that Russian border guards had been legally obligated to hand the suspect over to Armenian law enforcement (Armtimes.com, January 22). Subsequently, deputy head of the police Hunan Poghosyan said in an interview that he had visited the Russian military base soon after Permyakov’s arrest and demanded the murder suspect be handed over; however his appeal was turned down by the Russian military authorities (Azatutyun.am, January 26). Meanwhile, Russian representatives, including the counselor authorized to represent the Russian government at the Russian Supreme Court, repeatedly referred to Article 61 of the country’s constitution, according to which Russia’s citizens cannot be extradited to another country (Echo Moskvy, January 20).
Besides Moscow’s obstructive approach, the attitude of top Armenian officials have been contributing to further disappointment within Armenian society. President Serzh Sargsyan’s made his first public appearance after the Gyumri incident only on January 16, one day after the Avetisyans’ funeral, which was followed by mass protests. Sargsyan avoided making any statement related to the Avetisyan case as he visited a children’s chess tournament in Yerevan (Lragir.am, January 16). In fact, he expressed condolences to the victims’ surviving family only on January 18, immediately after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his own message of sympathy.
On January 19, a large contingent of riot police was spotted moving from Yerevan to Gyumri. The reason for such movement became clear in a few hours, after it was pronounced that the six-month old baby, wounded a week earlier in the shooting, died in the hospital. However, the announcement triggered no immediate protests, as the authorities might have expected. A peaceful march toward the presidential palace only took place in Yerevan on January 26; the participants repeated the demand that the case be investigated under Armenian jurisdiction and announced that more protest actions would follow (Azatutyun.am, January 26). At the same time, the Gyumri-based Archbishop of the Armenian Church, Mikael Ajapahian, who during the standoff between the protesters and the police on January 15 had asked the protesters to stop the demonstration and leave, said that renewed anti-government and anti-Russian demonstrations would have “unpredictable consequences.” He warned that he might not be able to restrain the people again in the future (Azatutyun.am, January 26).
Although Armenian officials have clearly indicated that demands concerning the case’s jurisdiction were well-justified, they seem reluctant to irritate Moscow by making an official request in this matter. Moreover, they likely expect that such a request would be denied anyway. Such avoidance tactics—hoping that the protest movement will just fade away—may lead to increasing tensions. It should also be pointed out that the current troublesome economic situation connected to Russia’s recession (see EDM, January 5) presents the Armenian government with a dilemma. Yerevan can either try to transform the Armenian economy by seeking new international partnerships at the expense of provoking Moscow’s displeasure, or it can stick with its traditional loyalty to Russia but face serious turmoil at home.
So far, it appears that the Armenian political elite has preferred avoidance tactics, accompanied by demonstrations of police strength and a propaganda campaign promoting the conspiracy theory about foreign powers trying to damage Russo-Armenian relations. However, the January 28 vote at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) may hint that Russia perhaps should not expect unequivocal support from Armenia in the future. As PACE voted to strip the Russian delegation of its voting rights because of Moscow’s actions vis-à-vis Ukraine, three Armenian members (all pro-government; opposition members had refused to participate in the PACE session, citing health reasons) abstained. The abstention (rather than a normal “no” vote in support of Moscow) was rather unexpected as Armenia used to be Russia’s most faithful backer in international forums: In March 2014, Armenia had been one of 11 states that voted against the United Nations General Assembly resolution declaring the Moscow-backed “referendum” in Crimea invalid. Remarkably, a high-level European Union representative recently indicated that the EU-Armenia association agreement could still be signed, albeit without its free-trade component that is incompatible with Armenia’s obligations toward the Eurasian Economic Union (Azatutyun.am, January 21). Previously, after the UN General Assembly vote on Crimea, EU officials had refused to discuss the possibility of such an arrangement.
Because of economic as well as other reasons, Armenian society needs a more open discussion on the subject of Armenia’s dependence on Russia. The investigation of the Gyumri incident, or rather Moscow’s de facto refusal to allow a proper investigation, currently constitutes one of principal points for such a discussion. It remains to be seen, however, if the authorities will engage in a productive dialogue with civil society on this strategically important issue.