Russia has criticized Armenia, its main regional ally, in unusually blunt terms following criminal charges brought by law-enforcement authorities in Yerevan against Yuri Khachaturov, the Armenian secretary general of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Khachaturov was charged on Thursday with involvement in what an Armenian law-enforcement agency now considers an “overthrow of the constitutional order” that followed a disputed presidential election held in February 2008.
The vote sparked opposition demonstrations in Yerevan which were quelled by security forces on March 1-2, 2008. Eight protesters and two police personnel died as a result. Khachaturov was Armenia’s deputy defense minister at the time.
The Special Investigative Service (SIS) levelled the same criminal charges against former President Robert Kocharian. He was arrested late on Friday after angrily denying the charges as politically motivated.
Khachaturov served as chief of the Armenian army’s General Staff from 2008-2016. Russia, Armenia and four other ex-Soviet states making up the CSTO appointed him as secretary general of the Russian-led defense pact in April 2017.
A spokesman for the Armenian Foreign Ministry said on Saturday that it has formally asked the other CSTO members to “start a process of replacing the secretary general.”
The move seems to have irked Russia. The official Russian TASS news agency quoted an unnamed “high-ranking diplomatic source in Moscow” as calling it “amazingly unprofessional.”
“It is all the more strange to hear such statements given that the changes that occurred in Armenia did not reflect on the staff of the [Armenian] foreign ministry which only recently submitted Khachaturov’s candidacy to the CSTO,” the source said, adding that Yerevan must formally “recall” the Armenian head of the alliance before asking the other members to replace him.
In a separate report, TASS said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made the same point in a phone call with his Armenian counterpart Zohrab Mnatsakanian on Thursday. “In particular, it was pointed out that in accordance with CSTO rules and procedures, the Armenian side must officially recall its citizen from the post of CSTO secretary general if such a decision was made in Yerevan,” it cited the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying.
The Armenian side dismissed the criticism later on Saturday. The Interfax news agency quoted “a highly placed source in Yerevan” as saying: “We regard as ineffective public discussions and explanations regarding the statutes, procedures and other documents of the CSTO which we know well.”
“We are committed to and respect the provisions of the CSTO statutes,” the Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Tigran Balayan, insisted on Monday. “And during our presidency of the CSTO we have done everything to strengthen the CSTO.”
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyum.am), Balayan would not be drawn on who could replace Khachaturov. “We have to wait for the decision on replacing him,” he said.
Russia has rarely made public statements critical of Armenia in the past. The two nations have maintained close political, military and economic ties ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has repeatedly pledged to maintain this “special” relationship since he swept to power in a wave of mass protests in May. But he criticized it when he was in opposition to Armenia’s former leadership.
Moscow signaled its concerns shortly after the SIS charged Khachaturov and asked a court in Yerevan for a permission to arrest him. “We are closely monitoring what is happening on this issue,” Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told TASS on Friday.
The district court agreed to grant Khachaturov bail a few hours later.
The SIS bases its case against Kocharian, Khachaturov as well as for Defense Minister Harutiunian on a secret order that was issued to the Armenian military during the post-election demonstrations organized by Levon Ter-Petrosian, the main opposition candidate in the 2008 ballot. It says that military units were told to move into Yerevan before Kocharian declared a state of emergency late on March 1, 2008. According to the law-enforcement agency, that violated constitutional provisions guaranteeing the political neutrality of the Armenian armed forces.
Kocharian insisted on Thursday that the army was simply put on high alert in order to prevent some of its soldiers and officers from heeding Ter-Petrosian’s repeated calls for top military officials to join his opposition movement. The ex-president also argued that army units were not involved in vicious clashes between security forces and protesters which were followed by the introduction of emergency rule.
Pashinian, who played a key role in the Ter-Petrosian-led movement, was the main speaker at a March 1, 2008 rally held several hundred meters from the scene of the deadly violence. Pashinian subsequently spent nearly two years in prison for organizing “mass disturbances” in the Armenian capital. He denied the accusations as politically motivated.