Rising Tensions for Armenia

While most of the world is focused on the war in Ukraine, terror acts in Europe and the atrocities committed by ISIL and Boko Haram, tensions are brewing in the South Caucasus. And Armenia is at the heart of it all.

Since summer of 2014 there has been an escalation in the ongoing skirmishes on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Fighting between the two countries is nothing new, as they have engaged in wars before, the first 1918-1922, and the second 1988-1994. While the two countries are technically still at war, major fighting has largely ceased since 1994. Most of this tension comes from the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, an area that lies within Azerbaijan but is inhabited mostly by ethnic Armenians. In the midst of the last war, Nagorno-Karabakh declared themselves an independent republic, albeit one that isn’t recognized by any country.

In November 2014, Azerbaijan shot down an Armenian military helicopter, claiming it violated Azerbaijani airspace. Since the beginning of the year, there have been almost daily reports of dozens of ceasefire violations by both sides. Since the increase in violence, Azerbaijan has said it could easily defeat Armenia if necessary. Armenia, on the other hand, has Russia on their side. Russia’s largest military base in the South Caucasus is the 102nd Military base in Gyumri.

Unfortunately, tensions between Armenia and Russia may be on the rise after a Russian soldier stationed in Gyumri killed an entire family of seven. On 12 January, Valery Permyakov is suspected leaving the base and barging into the home of the Avetisyan family, shooting six of the family members to death and leaving a six-month old with mortal stab wounds. Inexplicably, Permyakov left his uniform, boots and his AK-47 in the house before fleeing. He was caught a short time later trying to cross into Turkey. Permyakov was remanded to custody at the base, where he currently awaits trial, allegedly admitting to the murders.

For several days after Permyakov was detained and identified, large crowds – numbering in the thousands – gathered outside the Russian consulate demanding he be handed over to local authorities in Gyumri. Since then, a group of Russian-speaking activists called on Russia to send in troops to protect Russian-speakers, and place Permyakov – whom they call a ‘prisoner of conscience’ – under Russian protection. On 20 January it was reported by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Permyakov would be tried in Armenia with a Russian military court, but that report was contradicted one day later by Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said Permyakov would face trial in Russia.

The move to try Permyakov in Russia will likely cause Armenians to take to the streets again in anger. But Russia will likely want to appease Armenia, mostly because of the 102nd Military base. Its location is strategic not only to Turkey and Iran, but to Georgia, whose relationship with Russia has been considerably strained since the 2008 war during which Russia took control of South Ossetia. The base, which the Russians have leased through 2044, is unpopular with some Armenians who think the Russians have too much control in the country.

On top of the back and forth at the border with Azerbijan, and the massacre of an Armenian family at the hands of a Russian soldier, Armenia’s non-existent relationship with Turkey in making news. 2015 marks the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, carried out by the Ottomans in what is now Turkey. In 1915 an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed, while hundreds of thousands more were deported. Turkey has continuously denied the genocide, calling the killings justified because there was an threat to the nation from Armenians. Beyond denials, Turkey has even gone so far as to threaten those who criticize the government over the Armenian Genocide. Vocal critic and Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was murdered in 2007 by a teen “ultranationalist,” who said Dink was insulting Turkey.

Despite the tense relationship between the two countries, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Ergogan invited Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to Turkey to partake in the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign – on the same day Armenia will be commemorating the Armenian Genocide. Sargsyan immediately declined the invitation, but not before issuing his own to Erdogan to attend the events in Yerevan, Armenia’s capitol. There are those in Turkey’s government who are calling for the two countries to heal their differences. Armenians, however, see it differently, foregoing any sort of normal relations with their neighbor until Turkey admits their role in the genocide, which is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Unfortunately, these are all wait-and-see events. If the violence continues to escalate along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev could use that as an excuse to take the Nagorno-Karabakh region by force. A more immediate concern is the upcoming trial of Valery Permyakov. If it truly goes ahead in Russia as reported, then there will probably be mass protests in Armenia with the possibility of turning violent. Relations with Russia could very well sour quickly, also, depending on the outcome of the trial. Armenians will want nothing less than maximum punishment for the killing of the Avetisyan family. And while it is doubtful the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide itself will spur unrest, these other events could have the country on edge. 2015 looks to be a very tense year for Armenia.




A “Black Widow” Comes to Istanbul?

On 6 January, a woman walked into a police station in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, claiming – in English – that she lost her wallet. Moments later she detonated explosives hidden under her coat, fatally wounding one policeman and seriously wounding another. Turkish left-wing militant group Devrimci Halk Kurtulus Partisi/Cephesi (DHKP/C) posted a message on their website claiming responsibility. One week prior, on 1 January, DHKP-C attacked a police station near the prime minister’s Dolmabahçe Palace. That attack, which failed to cause any casualties or damage, was said to be in response to Turkish police killing 15 year old Berkan Elvan, an anti-government protester. Elvan was hit in the head with a teargas canister in June 2013 and later died in March 2014. In their statement about the suicide bombing, DHKP-C mentioned Elvan again. They also identified the bomber as Elif Sultan Kalsen, saying she committed an act of sacrifice. 

Kalsen is known to Turkish authorities as a known member of DHKP-C. In 2010, she was convicted of being a member of the group, and served two years in prison. She was subsequently named as someone who could be planning future attacks for the group. However, when Kalsen’s mother went to identify the body, she claimed is was not her daughter. So who was the suicide bomber?

Without mentioning sources, a Turkish news agency reported that the suicide bomber was in fact Diana Ramazova. They reported that Ramazova had foreign phone numbers in her phone, and that she spoke Russian to a taxi driver. Russian media outlet Kavkazpress has since reported that Ramazova was a Russian citizen from Dagestan who was living in Turkey with her husband and children, and was a radicalized Wahhabist. She entered the country in June 2014 as a tourist. Kavkazpress also reported that Russian authorities were conducting an investigation in Dagestan following the attack.  Since it was revealed that it was Ramazova responsible for the attack, DHKP-C has since taken down their statement. No other group has claimed responsibility, but Turkish police are looking into whether Ramazova had any connections to Islamic State or al Qaeda.

What was a Dagastani woman doing blowing herself up in Istanbul? Details are limited at this time. Turkish police aren’t talking. This bombing doesn’t fit with past suicide bombings by women from the Caucasus. Those attacks generally target Russian interests. In December, Russia announced they would build a natural gas pipeline to Turkey, but attacking a Turkish police station in protest of a Russian-Turkish partnership doesn’t make sense.

It may be as simple as Ramzova sympathized with the DHKP-C message. But where did she get the explosive belt? Did she or her husband have a connection to a terrorist group? Turkey has been somewhat ambivalent in regards to terrorists using the country as an entry point into Syria, but they have been helping train Kurdish Peshmerga to fight IS. Unlikely, given the target was a police station.

Until more details emerge, it is mere speculation. As they do, I will update this space as needed.

UPDATE (16Jan2014): In the week since the suicide bombings, details have been slowly emerging. Three persons of Dagestani origin had been arrested in the days after the attack, but no details have been released. Turkish authorities have said that Ramazova was a Russian citizen – Dagestani – but the Chechen Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) has denied that she ever held a Russian passport or that ‘Ramazova’ is even a Chechen surname. Just this morning, The Guardian reported that Ramazova’s husband – Abu Aluevitsj Edelbijev – was a Norwegian citizen of Chechen origin, who was recently killed in Syria. The newspaper also claims that the couple had traveled to Syria in Summer 2014. After her husband was killed, and she returned to Istanbul, Ramazova met with an unknown Russian woman shortly before the attack. No one has yet to claim credit for sending Diana Ramazova to blow herself up at the Istanbul police station, but the Jamestown Foundation offers a possible explanation to why, and why this attack may be just the beginning:

For the entire period of the existence of the Caucasus Emirate, none of its members considered attacking Turkey, since all the institutions of the Caucasus Emirate, such as its media, finance and representative offices, are all located on Turkish soil. IS members, however, are likely to strike at Turkey, and to portray the attacks as having been carried out by the Caucasus Emirate.

The Istanbul suicide attack by the Islamic State was a warning to Turkish authorities, who are blocking IS efforts to collect funds in local mosques and recruit young militants to fight in Syria. The main aim of the attack, however, was to displace the people who are working for the Caucasus Emirate in Turkey.

It bears repeating that within the last two months, six North Caucasus commanders switched allegiance from Caucasus Emirate leader Ali Abu Mukhammed to ISIL leader Abu-Bakr al Baghdadi, possibly signaling a schism in the CE.


2014: Personal Reflections

Right now, everyone is writing up their year-in-reviews, best-of lists and 2015 predictions. So many, in fact, that it sends some of spinning. So of course I have to write my own. I’ll keep it brief.

2014 was, to say the least, an interesting year. I began the year with eyes on Russia. Maidan was happening in Kyiv, bombings in Volgograd, and the Sochi Olympics were around the corner. I tweeted a lot more than I probably should have, but began to collect Twitter friends from around the world. I also began to collect my thoughts and wanted to write them down. Somebody would read them, right? In March I set up this blog with the intention of writing serious pieces mixed with the occasional lighthearted post. My first post was my experience watching (through live video feeds) those first few who would later be known as the Heavenly Hundred. A somber reflection on those who were killed standing up for Ukraine.

I like to say I found my niche a short time later, writing up a piece that combined Russia and the Caucasus, terrorism, and women. A strange combination, but we all have to find our thing. It was also the piece that connected me – in a manner of speaking – to some people who I have come to know as friends and mentors, and opened up new opportunities to write. The rise of Da’ish (Islamic State) in Syria and Iraq offered me an opportunity to write about Chechen extremist activities since the end of the Chechen Wars. I also took a look at the role of women in Da’ish, a post which garnered attention as far away as Australia.

2014 was the year of anniversaries, of the beginning of the Great War most notably, but another one passed with little attention outside a small area in southern Russia. The Beslan School attacks happened 10 years ago; I wrote to remember the victims. The First Chechen War began 20 years ago, a conflict that has never really ended as evident by the ongoing assassinations of Chechen dissidents around the globe, and by a recent attack in Grozny on 4 December.

The attack in Grozny was my first post as a contributor to a new blog on Medium, The Eastern Project. I’m excited about this new adventure, and thankful to Hannah and Garrett for the opportunity. I will forever be grateful to Tyrell Mayfield and Nathan Kinney, who saw my potential and posted my Chechen women piece on The Bridge. In those two I have found inspiration and friendship. There are too many people to thank; I have been blessed with many new friends.

I do want to thank all my readers and followers; you are why I do this. I appreciate everyone of you. I hope you enjoy what you read, and maybe even learn a little. I do.