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Zhirayr Sefilian greets supporters during his trial in Yerevan in June 2017.

Armenia’s National Security Service announced in early December that an arrest warrant was issued for a U.S. citizen of Armenian descent who allegedly set up a radical group named Fighters For Justice and plotted terrorist attacks against senior Armenian officials.

If those allegations prove true, Fighters For Justice would be the fourth group in two years to be implicated in an alleged attempt to undermine or overthrow Armenia's ruling regime.

Dozens of people affiliated with three separate groups are currently on trial on such charges.

That trend suggests either that latent discontent with the country’s leadership has reached a dangerously high level or that the Armenian authorities harbor a chronic mistrust of any person, informal organization, or group perceived capable of mobilizing broad popular support and thus posing a threat to political stability -- even though most political analysts consider such fears misplaced and unfounded in light of widespread public apathy and resignation.

ALSO READ: Sentence Imminent in Trial of Radical Armenian Oppositionist

One prominent case involves Lebanese-born Zhirayr Sefilian, who heads the radical political formations 100 Years Without The Regime and Founding Parliament.

Sefilian was arrested in June 2016 and charged with establishing an illegal armed formation, illegal possession of weapons, and plotting to instigate mass unrest and seize government facilities. The case against him was subsequently merged with that against a separate armed group calling itself Sasna Tsrer (Daredevils Of Sassoun). It stormed a Yerevan police station in July 2016 to demand Sefilian’s release and President Serzh Sarkisian’s resignation. Three police officers were killed before the gunmen surrendered two weeks later.

The second case centers on the Armenian Shield Regiment group, which was apprehended on suspicion of amassing weaponry with the intention of carrying out political assassinations and other terrorist acts.

Eleven members of that group, including its leader, Artur Vartanian, were arrested in November 2015. More suspects, including former Deputy Defense Minister Vahan Shirkhanian and an elderly Armenian Catholic priest, were arrested in the following weeks, bringing the total in custody to 33.

In March 2016, senior National Security Service official Mikael Hambartsumian divulged details of the investigation, which he said had established that the group was plotting to seize the presidential palace and other government buildings. He said group members had also discussed the possibility of shooting down Sarkisian’s plane, although Vartanian had not made a decision on whether to do so.

Vartanian’s lawyer, Levon Baghdasarian, admitted that its members had acquired the weapons (which included 10 automatic rifles, pistols, two rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 60 hand grenades, explosives and explosive devices, and several types of ammunition, together with communications equipment) confiscated during a search of the house they had rented in Yerevan, but categorically denied they had any intention of seizing government buildings and ousting Sarkisian, RFE/RL’s Armenian Service reported on November 21, 2016.

But Baghdasarian declined to clarify for what purpose Vartanian had stockpiled the weapons and explosives.

Four members of the group were sentenced in September on charges of illegally acquiring weapons on Vartanian’s orders. Twenty more -- including Vartanian and Shirkhanian -- were formally charged with membership in a criminal group, illegal possession of weapons, and plotting to seize power.

They went on trial in early December 2016, at which point the priest, Father Anton Totonjian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service that “the entire case is fabricated.”

Totonjian later admitted in court to having given Vartanian $60,000 but denied the money was meant to finance the alleged coup, RFE/RL’s Armenian Service reported.

Shirkhanian, 70, who is in failing health, rejected as untrue and politically motivated the claim that he suggested to Vartanian that the group should assassinate the president rather than simply seize government buildings, RFE/RL’s Armenian Service reported on July 24, 2016.

Given that Armenia was ranked in 2014 by a German think tank as the third-most militarized country in the world (after Israel and Singapore), the fact that both Sasna Tsrer and Vartanian’s group had weaponry at their disposal is hardly surprising. But possession of arms, although itself a criminal offense, does not necessarily imply the intention to resort to force and stage a coup, even if, as in the case of Sefilian, the accused had publicly advocated bringing about regime change.

However incautious or inflammatory their rhetoric, it is incumbent on the prosecution to provide convincing evidence that the accused intended to move from words to deeds. But in the cases of both Sefilian and the Armenian Shield Regiment, the prosecution’s case appears to have been based on incomplete or dubious evidence. That perception, together with numerous alleged procedural violations formally protested by defense lawyers, in turn fuels suspicions that the objective in bringing at least some of the accused to trial may have been to intimidate or silence outspoken critics of the ruling regime or people believed capable of mobilizing opposition to it.

The latter category also includes Samvel Babayan, the charismatic former commander of the armed forces of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, who was affiliated with an opposition grouping established by three former government ministers in the run-up to the Armenian parliamentary election last year. Babayan was arrested in March 2017 and accused of money laundering and acquiring through intermediaries -- at a price of $50,000 -- an Igla ground-to-air missile.

The prosecution never specified for what purpose Babayan wanted the missile, and one of his associates, Sanasar Gabrielian, admitted that it was he who sought to buy it from Robert Aghvanian, an Armenian living in Georgia, with the intention of making it available to the Nagorno-Karabakh army.

But Aghvanian sold the weapon to another man who did not implicate Babayan in the deal.The court nonetheless jailed Babayan in November 2017 for six years.

In a December 2017 statement cited verbatim by the news portal Caucasian Knot, seven Armenian human rights organizations alleged that “the persecution of people for political reasons, judicial investigations with a predetermined verdict, a wave of pressure and defamation at the behest of the authorities, have become the norm in Armenia.”

That tactic of arresting groups of people whose political affiliations were deemed to pose a threat to the regime dates back to the early years of Armenia’s post-Soviet history.

In December 1994, President Levon Ter-Petrossian ordered the arrest of 32 members of the then-opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun for their alleged links to a clandestine terror organization code-named Dro, the existence of which was never definitively demonstrated. Some were released in the summer of 1995; others who were tried and sentenced were pardoned shortly after Ter-Petrossian’s resignation in February 1998 by his successor, Robert Kocharian.

The Armenian authorities’ continued acute sensitivity to the threat of political destabilization is nonetheless understandable in light of two factors.

The first is the October 1999 attack by armed gunmen on the Armenian parliament that left the prime minister, the parliament speaker, and six others dead. At their trial, which began two years later, the self-styled leader of the five gunmen said he intended to seize the parliament building and overthrow the government.

The second is the state of undeclared war with Azerbaijan over the predominantly Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh region, which following a referendum in 1991 proclaimed itself a republic and declared independence from Azerbaijan, of which under international law it is a constituent part.

Although that state of “not peace, but not war” has continued since a 1994 cease-fire agreement, the underlying, persistent fear of renewed hostilities was reinforced by the political impact of the fighting in April 2016 along the 230-kilometer Line of Contact separating Armenian and Azerbaijani forces dug in east of the disputed territory. Some 70-80 Armenian servicemen died during the fighting, in which Azerbaijan succeeded in retaking a very small part of the territory over which it had lost control in the early 1990s.

The Armenian losses were in part the consequence of conscripts being issued insufficient equipment and being hampered by shortages of ammunition and weapons.

Those failures reinforced the perception that official corruption, which the authorities have for years downplayed and sworn to curtail, has become entrenched and endemic to the point that it now poses a direct threat to national security.

That military vulnerability has, in turn, been exacerbated, first by Russia’s perceived flouting of Armenian strategic interests in pursuit of a rapprochement with Baku, and second, by the ongoing uncertainty over how the configuration of power within the ruling elite will change in April 2018 following the end of Sarkisian’s second presidential term and the transition to a parliamentary republic in which the prime minister becomes the country’s most powerful political figure.

Despite those legitimate concerns, the authorities’ reliance on countering perceived threats to political stability with poorly substantiated criminal charges seen as politically motivated is likely, in the long-term, to compound long-standing public frustration at the seeming impossibility of bringing about political change by means of free and fair elections.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Chechens open their gates in commemoration of Deportation Day on February 23.

Seventy-four years after the event, the deportation of the entire Chechen and Ingush peoples to Central Asia on orders from Soviet leader Josef Stalin remains a contentious issue.

For one thing, Russians nationwide seem increasingly inclined to lend credence to the rationale cited at the time for that move: that the population of the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic had collaborated with the advancing Nazi German Army in 1941-42, and was thus guilty of treason. (Nikita Khrushchev exonerated the Chechens and Ingush of that charge in his legendary "secret speech" to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1956, paving the way for the return of the deported peoples from exile.)

In addition, both the Chechens and some Ingush resent the stance taken by their respective leaders with regard to commemorating the deportation. For decades, that commemoration took place on February 23, the anniversary of the day the mass deportation got under way, which was designated the Day of Remembrance and Mourning. Then in 2012, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov decreed that since February 23 is a national public holiday -- Defenders of the Fatherland Day -- it was inappropriate to celebrate the deportation anniversary on that date. Instead, Kadyrov issued orders that the deportation anniversary should be celebrated on May 10, which happens to be the date on which Kadyrov's late father, Akhmad, was buried in 2004 following his death in a terrorist bombing on May 9.

The perception that Kadyrov ranked his father's killing as a tragedy equal in significance to the deaths of the estimated 100,000 Chechens who perished during the deportation or in exile triggered widespread resentment among the Chechen population. So too did Kadyrov's assertion in 2014 that some Chechens, whom he did not identify, bore part of the blame for the deportation.

A Chechen police officer stands guard in front of the memorial for Akhmad Kadyrov, the father of current Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, in Grozny in July.
A Chechen police officer stands guard in front of the memorial for Akhmad Kadyrov, the father of current Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, in Grozny in July.

In line with Kadyrov's edict, no formal commemoration of the deportation took place in Chechnya this year. The news site Caucasian Knot, however, reported that Chechens were resorting to social media to share suggested ways to circumvent that ban, including distributing alms in memory of those who died and symbolically leaving the gates to their yards open, which is traditional practice when a household is mourning the death of one of its members.

In addition, some Chechens who live close to the border with the predominantly Chechen-populated Novolak district of neighboring Daghestan were reportedly among an estimated 1,500 people who gathered there for formal prayers in memory of those who died during the deportation and ensuing 13 years in exile.

Kadyrov did, however, post on Mylistory a statement pegged to the February 23 anniversary affirming that it was the Chechens' "true faith," courage, and devotion to their homeland that enabled them to survive. (That assertion is problematic in light of Kadyrov's concerted efforts over the past decade to redefine what constitutes "traditional Chechen Islam."

Chechen parliament speaker Magomed Daudov for his part, in seeming ignorance of the nature of Stalin's tyrannical regime, posted a statement implying that if at that time the Chechens had had a national leader of the caliber of Akhmad Kadyrov, he would have been able "to defend his people."

By contrast, in neighboring Ingushetia some 10,000 people participated in an official gathering on February 23 to commemorate the victims of the deportation, and an estimated 1,000 households opened their courtyard gates in a sign of mourning. But this year republic head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, who in 2012 had equated the deportation with genocide, posted on Instagram an anodyne and muted statement in which he hailed the centenary of the creation of the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army and argued that the deportation anniversary should not "prevent us from remembering our heroes...who participated in strategic battles."

Some Ingush activists openly deplored that shift in emphasis. Magomed Mutsolgov, whose Mashr organization offers legal advice to people whose relatives are believed to have been abducted by or otherwise fallen foul of the law enforcement agencies, was quoted as suggesting that Yevkurov was seeking simultaneously both to save face vis a vis the republic's population and to demonstrate his loyalty to the federal authorities by playing up the importance of the national holiday.

Criminalizing Revisionism

Yet despite their equivocation, the Chechen authorities reject unequivocally revisionist attempts to justify the deportation. One week prior to the anniversary, the Chechen parliament submitted to Russia's State Duma a draft bill criminalizing any deliberate effort "to distort the truth" about the history of World War II.

Former Russian parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, who himself experienced the horrors of the 1944 deportation as a small child, countered that initiative with a far more nuanced and sophisticated counterproposal to criminalize any attempt to justify the deportations -- an argument that could be construed as directed against Kadyrov personally.

Citing archive documents, Khasbulatov examined in some detail the factors that influenced the timing of the deportation of the Chechens and Ingush and the role played by Stalin's henchman Lavrenti Beria. He further convincingly debunked the myth of Stalin's alleged genius as a military strategist, while at the same time paying lip service to what he called the dictator's ‘'outstanding contribution" to the history of the U.S.S.R.

In that context, Khasbulatov condemns Stalin's post-World War II humiliation and destruction of Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov and other brilliant military commanders who inflicted major defeats on Nazi forces, stressing Stalin's compulsive self-aggrandizement and his despicable treatment of men to whom he owed a huge debt. Both traits have a more recent parallel in Kadyrov's sidelining of Sulim Yamadayev and Said-Magomed Kakiyev, commanders respectively of the elite East and West battalions that were directly subordinate to Russian Military Intelligence. Those military formations played a key role in the defeat of Chechnya's pro-independence president, Aslan Maskhadov, in the 1999-2000 war.

In the early 2000s, Sulim Yamadayev was one of Akhmad Kadyrov's most trusted advisers. He was assassinated in Dubai in March 2009. Adam Delimkhanov, who represents Chechnya in the State Duma and is close to Ramzan Kadyrov, is suspected by the Dubai authorities there of having masterminded Yamadayev's killing.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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