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In Armenia, Brutal Killing Tests Renewed Loyalty To Moscow

Large Crowds At Funeral For Armenian Family
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WATCH: Crowds spilled out of the church and into the streets at the funeral of the six members of an Armenian family allegedly killed by a Russian soldier. Members of parliament and other public figures joined relatives and other mourners. (RFE/RL's Armenian Service)

Hundreds of people lined up outside Gyumri's St. Nshan Church on January 15 for a chance to pay their respects to six family members brutally murdered in their home earlier this week.

The youngest victim, 2-year-old Hasmik Avetisian, lay in a tiny coffin, her arm wrapped around a doll.

Described by neighbors as quiet and hard-working, the Avetisians -- two grandparents, their son and daughter, a daughter-in-law, and young Hasmik, were shot dead on January 12.

A 6-month-old boy, Seryozha -- in critical condition from stab wounds -- is the only survivor.

The crime, grim by any measure, has proved especially horrifying for the South Caucasus nation because the suspected gunman is not Armenian but Russian -- a soldier serving at Moscow's 102nd military base in Gyumri.

The soldier, Valery Permyakov, confessed to the crime after being apprehended by Russian border guards as he was reportedly attempting to cross into Turkey. Hours earlier, he had apparently walked off the base undetected, carrying an automatic rifle and ammunition.

The motive for the crime is uncertain, although there is a suggestion that Permyakov, a young conscript from Siberia who had served at the base for only two months, was mentally unstable.

But his suspected involvement has set off a storm of protests aimed at not only Permyakov but also the Kremlin's lingering dominance over its poor southern neighbor, which has continued to host Russian soldiers long after other neighbors successfully shed their military bases.

Arman Suleymanian, an Armenian journalist speaking to Russia's Dozhd TV, expressed amazement at reports that Permyakov had abandoned the base in the middle of the night, heavily armed, without attracting attention.

"No alarm was raised at the base -- no one cared why this soldier was roaming the streets with a Kalashnikov," Suleymanian said. "Then this murder takes place, and Armenian officials react by saying that he had asked for a glass a water and been refused, and that's why he shot everyone. It's just one stupid statement after another."

Large crowds of protesters have gathered outside the Gyumri base, where Permyakov is now being held, demanding that he be handed over to Armenian law enforcement to ensure he is prosecuted locally.

Russian and Armenian officials, who claim to be cooperating on an investigation, so far have offered mixed messages on who holds the right to take the soldier to trial.

A day after the killings, Armenia's Prosecutor-General's Office indicated Permyakov would not been handed over to Yerevan, noting that the Russian Constitution prohibits the extradition of Russian citizens to foreign states.

But Armenian activists say the fact that Permyakov was taken into Russian custody violates the terms of a 1997 bilateral treaty stipulating that Russian military personnel who commit crimes outside the Gyumri base fall under Armenian jurisdiction.

Untrusting Public

The same treaty says Russia maintains jurisdiction over crimes, like desertion, committed on-base -- meaning Russia has a legal basis for arguing that it should handle the prosecution.

Gevork Kostanian, Armenia's prosecutor-general, told demonstrators in Gyumri on January 15 that that he would raise the issue of Yerevan prosecuting Permyakov with Russian authorities.

Nevertheless, many Armenians are alarmed by the fact that their government may be quicker to side with Russia than with them. Armenia in 2013 rebuffed a long-anticipated Association Agreement with the EU in favor of joining the Moscow-led customs union, a deal that many saw as bearing the trace of Kremlin coercion.

Armenian protesters shout slogans in front of the prosecutor's office in Gyumri.
Armenian protesters shout slogans in front of the prosecutor's office in Gyumri.

Angela Hassassian, a teacher and PR consultant, says protesters in Gyumri and Yerevan believe Armenian officials, wary of offending Russia, have soft-pedaled the issue. She adds that many protesters are skeptical Permyakov will receive a scrupulous trial even if he is handed to an Armenian court.

"I don't know exactly to what extent the Armenian public trusts these governmental bodies to do things in an unbiased fashion and not listen to their Russian counterparts," Hassassian says.

"A lot of people are afraid that regardless of whether the case going to be tried in Armenia in Russia, either way the results will be essentially the same" -- a light sentence, or, even worse, a mutual agreement to leave the incident unsolved.

Gyumri residents are seen as largely tolerant of the Russian base, which has provided steady employment for a number of locals. But the Avetisian murders have nevertheless evoked unpleasant memories of past violence tied to the 102nd.

In 1999, two intoxicated Russian officers opened fire at the city's market, killing two and wounding dozens of others. In 2013, two boys were killed by explosive devices left by Russian soldiers on the base's firing ground.

Mikael Ajapahyan, the head of a local diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church, has called for calm in Gyumri but said people must get "clear answers" on the murders, adding, "I cannot calm them down for life."

The killings come at an awkward time for Russia, which recently announced that it was welcoming foreign contract soldiers into its ranks, in part to boost the number of natives serving at its remaining bases in Armenia, Belarus, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. (Russia has withdrawn bases from Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.)

Attempting to smooth over the situation, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu condemned the crime and quickly dispatched his deputy, General Arkady Bakhin, to head a special investigative commission. Authorities at the base, meanwhile, have vowed a vigorous and collaborative probe.

In a televised statement, the base's deputy commander, Aleksei Polyukhovich, offered assurances that Permyakov, if guilty, "will get the most severe punishment" possible. People capable of such crimes "have no nationality," he added, stressing historic ties between the two countries.

"The centuries-old friendship between the Armenian and Russian peoples has withstood a number of trials over time -- both in times of Turkish wars and natural disasters," Polyukhovich said. "Now is the time of another test."

RFE/RL's Armenian Service contributed to this report

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