Signaling concerns over unprecedented anti-Russian protests in Gyumri, President Vladimir Putin reportedly assured his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian on Sunday that Moscow will help to punish those responsible for the killing of six members of a local Armenian family.
According to official Russian and Armenian sources, Putin telephoned Sarkisian to “once again express condolences to the relatives of the victims and the entire Armenian people” in connection with the slaughter allegedly perpetrated by a Russian soldier.
“The president of Russia expressed confidence that all necessary investigative actions will be taken within shortest time frames and that all the guilty will receive punishment envisaged by the law,” read a statement released by the Kremlin.
The statement said Putin also expressed hope that Russian medics who have arrived in Yerevan will help their Armenian colleagues save the life of the 6-month-old Seryozha Avetisian, the only survivor of the January 12 shooting spree. He said the Russian government is ready to transport the baby boy remaining in critical condition to Moscow for further treatment.
The Kremlin did not specify whether the two leaders discussed growing demands in Armenia for the Russian military to turn over the detained soldier, Valery Permyakov, to Armenian law-enforcement authorities. Moscow’s failure to do so has sparked angry protesters in Gyumri.
Many local residents fear that Russian authorities will cover up the shock crime if they handle the case. Hundreds of them clashed with riot police near the Russian consulate in Gyumri on Thursday. A larger number of Armenians protested outside the Gyumri headquarters of a Russian military base in Armenia the previous day.
A separate statement on the phone call issued by the Armenian presidential press service said Sarkisian and Putin stressed the need for “maximally close cooperation” between Russian and Armenian bodies investigating the killings. It said Sarkisian made clear that Armenian law-enforcement authorities will carry on with their efforts to “fully uncover all circumstances of the case.”
It was not clear whether the Armenian leader urged Putin to make sure that Permyakov, who has confessed to the killings, is tried in an Armenian court.
Both Armenian and Russian officials have indicated until now that the case will be taken up by a Russian military court located in Yerevan. The court has already remanded the 18-year-old conscript in pre-trial custody on charges of multiple murder and desertion.
On Thursday, Armenia’s Prosecutor-General Gevorg Kostanian promised, under pressure from the furious Gyumri protesters, to ask his Russian counterpart to transfer the suspect to Armenian jurisdiction. The pledge did not satisfy many in the crowd of about 2,000 people, resulting in a march to the Russian consulate, which was forcibly stopped by Armenian security forces.
Significantly, the Russian government has not yet officially condemned or criticized the unprecedented unrest in a country where public opinion has traditionally been in favor of close links with Russia. But many pundits in Moscow, including those close to the Kremlin, have rung alarm bells, warning of serious damage to Russian-Armenian ties. Some of them have even suggested that continued Russian military presence in the South Caucasus state may now be at risk.
This might explain why Putin decided to phone Sarkisian almost one week after the tragedy. He made no official statements on the matter until then, a fact contrasting with the Kremlin’s claim that the Russian president “once again” offered his condolences.
The Russian news agency RBK on Friday quoted an unnamed Russian security official as saying that Moscow has not yet made a final decision regarding Permyakov’s extradition to the Armenian side. The official said the suspect’s fate will be determined by Russia’s political leadership.
Under a bilateral treaty signed in 1997, soldiers of the Russian military base in Gyumri accused of crimes committed outside their units shall be dealt with by Armenian law-enforcement and judicial bodies. At the same time, Russia’s constitution prohibits the extradition of Russian nationals to any foreign state. This is the official reason why Permyakov remains in Russian military custody.
The soldier was reportedly caught by Russian border guards in Armenia while attempting to cross into Turkey more than 12 hours after the family massacre. They are said to have sent him back to the Russian base, which he deserted while being at a guard post overnight. Some Armenian government critics question this official theory, saying that Yerevan may have deliberately let the Russians capture their fugitive soldier.
Despite keeping custody of Permyakov, the Russian military has not only allowed Armenian investigators to question the suspect but also assigned him an Armenian defense attorney. The lawyer, Tamara Yayloyan, told the “168 Zham” newspaper on Saturday that she decided to abandon the case after attending an interrogation of her client.
“My refusal was unprofessional, but I just couldn’t control my emotions,” explained Yayloyan. “True, I have dealt with many murder cases for the past 17-18 years … But never before have I dealt with a case involving the murder of an infant. That had a big emotional impact on me.”
According to Yayloyan, Permyakov told his interrogators that he had never had contact with any of the murdered members of the Avetisian family before breaking into their Gyumri house early on January 12. He said he randomly picked the modest house to ask its residents for water.
The resulting shooting spree left a middle-aged couple, their daughter, son, daughter-in-law and 2-year-old granddaughter dead.
“[Permyakov] was asked, ‘Why did you shoot?’” the lawyer revealed to “168 Zham.” “He said, ‘I don’t know, they made noise, one of them reached for a mobile phone and I opened fire.’ When asked why he stabbed the babies he said, ‘I don’t know.’ He responded to almost every question with ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I can’t explain.’”