By Evan Gottesman
On January 13, Russian troops stationed on the Turkey-Armenia border apprehended Private Valery Permyakov. The previous day, Permyakov, a Russian soldier, deserted his base in the Armenian city of Gyumri and killed six members of a local family. A seventh victim, an infant boy, initially survived but succumbed to his injuries on January 19. The murders sparked unprecedented protests in Gyumri and the capital city of Yerevan, and new demonstrations are still being planned. Despite the emotional response, the killings and demonstrations are unlikely to damage Armenia’s strong ties to Moscow.
Valery Permyakov’s base at Gyumri hosts over 3,000 Russian soldiers along with fighter jets, tanks, and other hardware. Gyumri, like most of Russia’s foreign military installations, is located within the borders of the former Soviet Union. Moscow’s presence in these areas was a given until the U.S.S.R. dissolved 23 years ago. Accordingly, few in the post-Soviet republics (what Russia refers to as the “near abroad”) question Russian deployments there. This is especially true in Armenia. Dr. Yevgenya Paturyan, who teaches at the American University of Armenia, concluded that, “the pro-Russian attitude has a lot to do with the Armenian Genocide.” According to Dr. Paturyan, “Turkey is perceived by almost any Armenian as an archenemy,” because of the genocide. “Turkey is a member of NATO, hence NATO is an enemy. Russia opposes NATO. An enemy of my enemy is my friend. This is how the average Armenian thinks.” It follows that criticism of Russia is rare in the political arena. Davit Sanasaryan is the spokesman for Heritage, an opposition party in Armenia’s National Assembly. He told World Policy Journal that, “Heritage is the only political party which always was against deployment of Russian military bases in Armenia.” He believes Moscow’s presence, “endangers and threatens, first of all, our [Armenia’s] independence.”
Indeed, while Armenia officially achieved statehood in 1991, its membership in Kremlin-led integration projects like the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union preserve many old economic, political, and security networks. This reality made January’s protests surprising. However, the demonstrations obscure Armenia’s need for its Russian sponsor. Dr. Vahram Ter-Matevosyan of the American University of Armenia studies regional security in the South Caucasus. He cited the, “Karabakh conflict, blockade imposed by Turkey and the increasing number of Armenians in Russia," as defining Armenia's relations with Moscow. “No doubt, each of these categories have a dozen subcategories,” Ter-Matevosyan added, “and all of them are merged into one word – security.”
Armenia’s geopolitical position and security needs restrict its options in handling the Gyumri murders. Armenia is a landlocked country located on the periphery of three powerful states—Turkey, Iran, and Russia. Two of Armenia’s neighbors, Azerbaijan and Turkey, are unfriendly states. The Nagorno-Karabakh War against Azerbaijan left Yerevan isolated in its own neighborhood. Now, Armenia’s eastern and western borders are closed and regional infrastructure projects deliberately bypass the country. The dispute with Baku persists and recent military escalation make lasting resolution an increasingly distant prospect. This perpetuates Armenia's political and economic estrangement. Such conditions make simple practices like trade and energy supply difficult. Armenia compensates with Russian gas and energy systems, but this too comes at a cost: Moscow controls around 80 percent of Armenia’s energy infrastructure, tying Yerevan even closer to the Kremlin.
Armenian troops march in Moscow during the 2010 Victory Day parade
Although Russia is Armenia’s primary political and military patron, Moscow also arms Azerbaijan, a policy that fuels Armenian insecurity. While most other countries would seek a more reliable ally, Yerevan has no such option. Though Armenia maintains friendly ties with neighboring Iran, the Islamic Republic cannot fill the Russian Federation’s security role in the South Caucasus. Tehran can serve as a transit point for Armenian trade to reach foreign markets, but it has limited strategic aims outside of the Middle East. Iran shares good relations with Russia, and is unlikely to challenge an ally in its own backyard. The West is also not a viable option. In 2008, France and Germany promised to block Armenia’s neighbor Georgia from joining NATO. Given this opposition, it is unlikely that Western governments would offer Armenia similar protection. Rejecting Tbilisi’s NATO bid was tacit recognition that the South Caucasus is still largely a Russian neighborhood, and that any further Western involvement in the region means confrontation with Moscow.
During the demonstrations in Gyumri and Yerevan, some protesters made an unprecedented call for the Russians to evacuate Armenian territory. Most demanded that an Armenian court try Valery Permyakov. Activists cited a 1997 Russia-Armenia agreement which stipulates that, “In cases of crimes and other offenses committed on the territory of the Republic of Armenia by individuals who are members of the Russian military base and their families, the laws of the Republic of Armenia are applied, and its competent organs will take action.” Heritage’s Davit Sanasaryan denounced Yerevan for allowing Russia to try Permyakov and blamed the government for failing to restore calm. “The President of Armenia must immediately demand the leadership of Russia transfer Valery Permyakov’s case,” Sanasaryan told World Policy Journal. “The authorities of Armenia,” he remarked critically, “are thinking about not offending the Kremlin.”
Much to the ire of the protesters and the parliamentary opposition, a Russian court will be trying Permyakov, albeit on Armenian soil. The United States similarly overruled Afghan officials who wanted to try American soldiers accused of crimes against their citizens. As with Armenia, international security and political dependence shaped Afghanistan’s domestic affairs. However humiliating the Armenian people view Moscow's behavior to be, Yerevan’s geopolitical position may force the government’s hand in dealing with Russia and demonstrators. On January 28, Armenian police declared that protest organizers could face prosecution. In this tense atmosphere, Dr. Yevgenya Paturyan fears the situation might “break into a storm at any time.” She cautioned that, “if the final decision on Permyakov’s case will judged by Armenians as unsatisfactory, there will be another round of unrest.”
Increased friction between the Armenian authorities and the public could threaten Yerevan’s domestic popularity. While the Armenian government’s popularity may fluctuate, one thing promises to remain constant in the small South Caucasus nation, as it has for almost two centuries: Russia.
Evan Gottesman is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.