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One Year After Family's Brutal Slaying, Armenian City Divided Over Russian Base

The brutal slaying of an entire family, blamed on a Russian soldier serving at the base, has shocked Gyumri residents and raised questions about the continued presence of Russian armed forces on Armenian soil.
The brutal slaying of an entire family, blamed on a Russian soldier serving at the base, has shocked Gyumri residents and raised questions about the continued presence of Russian armed forces on Armenian soil.

GYUMRI, Armenia -- Russia's 102nd Military Base has long been a fixture in this northwestern Armenian city, the country's second-largest.

Founded in 1941, the facility survived the Soviet Union's demise before receiving its current name, along with a 25-year lease, in the mid-1990s.

But the brutal slaying of an entire family, blamed on a Russian soldier serving at the base, has shocked Gyumri residents and raised questions about the continued presence of Russian armed forces on Armenian soil.

Artur Koshtuyan still mourns for his seven slain relatives, the Avetisians, shot dead or fatally stabbed in their home late on January 12, 2015. This week he participated in a ceremony in Gyumri to honor the memory of the victims -- two grandparents, their son and daughter, a daughter-in-law, a 2-year-old girl, and a 6-month-old baby boy who died of his wounds in the hospital one week after the rampage.

But while he's heartbroken, Koshtuyan still believes the Russian base plays a vital role in protecting Gyumri against a potential attack from Turkey, whose border lies a mere 10-minute drive from the city.

"We need this base," Koshtuyan tells RFE/RL. "If the Russians left, the Turks would be able to enter the city any time. Our army is not strong enough to defend Armenia."

Many in Gyumri share this view.

"I can tell you now that if the Russian Army pulled out of here, there'd be a Turkish flag flying over this town within the week," says Samvel Melkonian, who is selling sheep on the road leading to the base. "Azerbaijan and Turkey would come at us from both sides."

Armenian sheep dealer Samvel Melkonian
Armenian sheep dealer Samvel Melkonian

​The Avetisian case is not the first bloodshed tied to Russian soldiers in the city.

In 1999, two drunk Russian officers opened fire on shoppers at a local market, killing two people and wounding dozens more. And in 2013, two teenagers were killed by explosive devices left on the base's firing ground. Locals say that there were no warning signs and that the firing ground had not been cordoned off.

Gyumri residents have nonetheless been largely tolerant of the base, which, in addition to offering some degree of protection from Armenia's neighbors, provides employment for locals.

But some are running out of patience and want the Russian troops to pack their bags. "We don't need these soldiers," Vladimir, another relative of the Avetisians, says angrily. "Let them get the hell out of here."

Jurisdiction Squabble

One day after the family's shocking deaths, Armenian prosecutors had indicated that the Russian Constitution prohibited the extradition of Valery Permyakov -- the Russian soldier suspected of the crime -- to Armenia.

Valery Permyakov
Valery Permyakov

News that the presumed killer would not be handed over to Armenia sparked furious protests in the city, with some demonstrators denouncing Moscow's lingering dominance over the small Caucasus nation long after many other former Soviet countries shut down their Russian military bases.

Armenian activists had lobbied hard for Permyakov to be prosecuted locally, citing a 1997 bilateral agreement stipulating that Russian military personnel who commit crimes outside the territory of the 102nd Military Base fall under Armenian jurisdiction.

It took six months for Russia to agree to an Armenian trial of Permyakov, who has spent the past year in detention at the base.

He has reportedly confessed to the killings, although his motives remain unclear.

Permyakov has already been sentenced to 10 years in prison in a separate trial by a Russian military court on charges of stealing weapons from the base, deserting, and carrying the weapons in Gyumri.

Distrust Grows

The Armenian murder trial opened on December 18 in a small courtroom at the military base, but the hearings were adjourned until later this month after the court rejected requests for a change of venue and for Russian officers to leave the room.

A number of local residents now suspect Russian officers of concealing the truth about the Avetisians' deaths, possibly to cover up for other Russian military personnel.

"We think he wasn't alone there," Maryam, a relative of the victims, tells RFE/RL. "Maybe this Permyakov isn't even guilty. We want to know the truth, but how can we do that when he's in Russian detention and the judge consults with Russian officers?"

PHOTO GALLERY: Armenians Face Cold Reality After Gyumri Massacre

Permyakov's alleged escape from the base and the subsequent killings have left Gyumri residents with more questions than answers. Many say they have lost trust in both the Russian and the Armenian investigations.

"The base is located on Armenian, not Russian, territory; it's not an embassy," says Levon Barsegyan, a member of Gyumri's council of elders. "But our prosecutors have taken no action to arrest Permyakov; they simply surrendered our sovereignty."

According to Barsegyan, Russian prosecutors have made only nine of the 72 volumes composing Permyakov's criminal case available to their Armenian counterparts.

"I have a feeling that he's not being handed over to Armenian justice in order to prevent him from revealing anything about the Russian base," he says. "There have been reports of embezzlement and financial fraud; perhaps the Russian Defense Ministry doesn't want these facts to come to light."

Permyakov's murder trial is scheduled to resume on January 18.

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    Sergei Khazov-Cassia

    Sergei Khazov-Cassia is an award-winning investigative journalist, author, and documentary filmmaker who has focused his reporting on embezzlement and corruption in Russia's political elite.

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues.

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