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.