Monica Ellena in Tbilisi -
The killing of six members of a family by a Russian soldier in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city, has sparked popular fury in the country and raised questions about the terms of Armenia-Russia relations.
In the early hours of January 12, Valery Permyakov, an 18-year-old Russian conscript serving at Russia’s 102nd military base in Gyumri, went on a rampage and killed six members of the Avetisyan family, including a two-year-old child. A 6-month-old baby, who miraculously survived stab wounds, remains in critical condition in a nearby hospital. Permyakov fled but was caught near the Turkish-Armenian border and taken back to the Russian base where he remains in custody. He admitted the shooting, but thus far the reasons remain unclear.
The incident has caused a wave of fury in the country. People have demanded that the killer be tried in Armenia and have accused the government of allowing Russia to run the investigation. On January 15 clashes between protesters and police resulted in 14 people injured and 13 arrested, reported Arka News, citing a police statement.
Prosecutor-General Gevorg Kostanyan stated that investigations will be carried out jointly by Russian military and Armenian law enforcement authorities, adding that Russia's constitution prohibits the extradition of Russian citizens to foreign states. Both Defence Minister Seyran Ohanyan and Russia’s ambassador Ivan Volynkin have called for calm, saying that the case must not be politicised and re-assuring people that Armenian and Russian investigators will work together to clarify the circumstances of the murder.
The shooting is not the first involving Russian soldiers and Armenian civilians in Gyumri. In 1999 two Russian conscripts opened fire in a market place and in 2013 two children died as they played with unexploded devices around the unfenced base. But this time emotions are running higher.
“The incident is a tipping point for the relation between Yerevan and Moscow,” explains Richard Giragosian, American-born political analyst and founder of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Centre. “The pro-Russian feelings of large parts of the population is not in question, but the event and how it has been mis-handled by both the Armenian and Russian authorities opened a debate about re-negotiating the terms of a deeply asymmetric relation.”
The imbalance starts with the Gyumri military installation, which is of no strategic relevance but is symbolically important. Unlike bases in other former Soviet Union republics, Russia pays neither rent nor the base’s running costs, which are entirely covered by the Armenian government.
“Dependence on Russia is deeply entrenched but the incident showed it can affect the country’s own sovereignty,” he stresses. “The realistic outcome is for Permyakov to go on trial in Armenia in a Russian military court as there is one in Yerevan. But people will hardly accept this,” he adds.
“The president has been passive and silent, with the stated intention to avoid any kind of high profile involvement, and the unstated one to avoid angering Moscow,” stresses Giragosian. “In normal circumstances, emotions will fade and the momentum will reverse, but police overreaction and lack of response from the authorities will make it harder to put it back in the bottle.”
The incident has lifted the lid over the Pandora box of Armenia’s socio-economic dependence on Russia.
The impact of sanctions on Russia over Ukraine has been deeper than expected; remittances, a vital influx for the country’s cash-strapped economy, sharply declined; the national currency dived on the rouble’s devaluation, and food prices have increased.
According to Giragosian, the government’s inability to stand up for the Armenian people in Guymri also let out all the frustration over the derailing of the country’s European ambitions when it closed the door to the Association Agreement with Europe and joined instead the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
Armenians put a brave face on the Russia-led economic alliance, which officially entered into force on January 1, even though it marks serious changes for the country’s traditional open and liberal economy, and could put constraints on trade with countries outside the EEU.
In an additional twist of economic fate, on January 16 Moody's downgraded Armenia's government bond rating to Ba3 from Ba2, and changed the outlook to negative from stable. The rating agency stated that the impact of Russia's economic downturn on Armenia's economy will be more significant than currently expected, with the balance of payments situation and the government's debt trajectory vulnerable to depreciation risk.
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