UARU
A New Armenia: Living Next Door to the Russian Army
14 December, 2018

Relations between Armenia and Russia have always been close. After the revolution and change in government, many people in the country said that Yerevan would now steer its course towards the West. But has this really been the case?

Armenia’s second city Gyumri, located 126 kilometers outside the capital, is home to Russia’s largest military base in the Caucasus with a contingent of around five thousand servicemen.

Hromadske traveled to Gyumri ahead of the December 9 parliamentary elections, which secured revolution leader Nikol Pashinyan’s premiership, to find out how the revolution has affected relations between Armenia and Russia and what it’s like for ordinary Armenians to live next to Russian soldiers.

Storm

Put the camera away!

A Russian officer tries to calm down some angry Armenian men in vain.

– What? I have the right! I was born here and live here!

– I’m telling you to switch the camera off. Why are you filming?

– And why the fuck are you shooting?

– Listen… let’s no go there.

– You, in the camouflage, listen. Identify yourself! What’s your name, patronymic? What’s your rank, commander?!

The road leading to the village of Panik, Armenia, August 18, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

On July 18, 2018, the village of Panik became known throughout Armenia and even abroad. This is when a convoy of Russian military equipment arrived and servicemen began firing. The Russian military appeared in the middle of the day, without insignia and without warning. The Russian side says this was just a military exercise. But according to Pashinyan, this was a provocation challenging Armenia’s sovereignty.

READ MORE: A New Armenia: How The Country Endures Through War and Unrest

“People here were really scared!” recalls Armen Gevorgyan. His house is located on the outskirts, around 300 meters away from where the shots were fired. He was working on his car in the garage when the Russians arrived. Having heard the loud bangs, he assumed that there had been an explosion at the nearby gas station and ran straight there. But when he saw the Russians, he started filming them with his phone, demanding explanations from the officers.

A closed gas station in the village of Panik, not far from where the Russian military fired shots on July 18, 2018, Armenia, August 18, 2018.  Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

“I was also scared at first. You know, this whole country is in a state of war, a lot of people fought in Karabakh. Whenever there’s shots fired, there’s fear,” he adds.  

This all coincided with the moment when the new government, headed by Nikol Pashinyan, started actively fighting corruption in the country. The oligarchs from the previous government, who had good connections with the Kremlin, were the ones most affected by this.

Armenia’s anti-corruption efforts received severe criticism from Russia. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the new Armenian government of waging a political vendetta. No one in Yerevan knew if Russia would follow up these words with actions. For the locals in Panik, the whole political context, like Yerevan, seemed far away.

The shots woke up small children. And elderly people, who have lived through enough adversity in their country, thought that the Turks were moving in through the western border.

Half the village fled at the sound of the explosions.

“Oh, I was so angry that day!” Gevorgyan comments. “But then the Russians in charge came and apologized, they explained that it was a misunderstanding and we calmed down. I have no hard feelings against the Russians for those exercises.”

The storm in Panik cleared as quickly as it started.

Good people

No one in Panik believes that the Russian military exercises were a planned provocation. Everyone here is convinced that it was an unfortunate accident and the Russians simply chose the wrong place for the exercises. The locals are indignant only about the fact they were not informed beforehand.  

Gevorgyan blames everything on the former Armenian government.

Teymine works at a roadside shop in the village center. She considers the Russian soldiers friends, Panik, Armenia, August 18, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

“The previous government, especially president Serzh Sargsyan, let the Russians do everything. They thought they could do that now. So they did not ask our permission,” Gevrogyan states.

“Russian equipment passes through here every day generally. We know most of the soldiers by face, they’re alright guys. We have a garden near the village. It’s communal, anyone can go there. Sometimes, at the end of summer, we pick fruit and we treat the Russians who pass by,” he adds.

As we’re talking, a self-propelled artillery unit hurtles past. None of the villagers pay any attention.  

They don’t shoot, so everything is fine. The road to the military base in Gyumri to the weapons range runs through Panik. This is the only way to get there, so the Russians are frequent guests to the village.

An especially popular spot for visitors to the village is the roadside shop in the village center. They sell an astounding amount of goods in this cramped space – from pasta to religious icons, from children’s notebooks to vodka. The person in charge of this impressive collection is an elderly lady named Teymine. If for some people this appears chaotic, for Teymine there is a clear system, where every item has its own specific place.  

“The soldiers are our friends. They come to the shop here. We treat them, and they treat us. They regard us well and we regard them well. They are good people, the Russians. Why would they provoke us?” she says, shrugging her shoulders.

It’s not just the military base that connects these people to Russia. Almost all the able-bodied men have traveled there at least once to find work. Many of them stay there, some go back and forth for seasonal work, like Teymine’s two sons. They went to Russia’s Samara region to work as tractor operators.

Children playing in the center of Panik village, Armenia, August 18, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

“My youngest son is an artist, but there was no work here. At first he worked as a groundskeeper at a school, but the pay was 29,000 drams –  that’s $60. He has three kids, what was he supposed to do? You can’t feed a family on that money,” Teymine says.

READ MORE: A New Armenia: “We Either Use This Opportunity or Lose Everything”

She turns towards her young granddaughter, who’s sitting by her side watching cartoons on a phone. “What did your dad say, Amo? When is he coming back from Russia?”

Without waiting for her granddaughter to respond, Teymine says, “In four months. Let him earn a bit more money, maybe he’ll bring something for the little ones.”

Neighbors with Russia

It also works the other way round: Russian men come to Armenia to work. Granted, it’s a small category of people – army officers. They come to serve at these Russian military bases.

“They pay more here,” says Aram, as he takes a drag of his cigarette. Aram owns a hostel in Gyumri. To be precise, it’s a Soviet-era building, where you can rent a room for a few nights. On Booking.com, it’s respectfully named “Guest House.”

Hostel owner Aram in Gyumri, Armenia, August 18, 2018. Photo: Ostap Yarysh/Hromadske

“Russian officers here earn over $1000 a month. Before the crisis, this was big money, now it’s less, but it’s still pretty decent. They wouldn’t earn as much serving in Russia. So they move over here with their families.”

Aram pours from a freshly opened bottle of cognac. In Amenia, this is automatically included in the accommodation price. If the first glass goes down well, and your conversation is good enough, then this kind of hospitality will keep on coming.

Russian military base in Gyumri, Armenia, August 18, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

“A Russian family stayed with me recently,” Aram continues, “They came here from Volgograd, the husband had settled into work at the army base. The family stayed here while they searched for a flat for themselves. This officer – Misha, was his name – said that he got 25,000 rubles (around $377) in Russia, but in Gyumri he was offered 50,000 (around $754) from the start. You see the difference?”

Aram lights another cigarette. He only smokes in the living room. With the windows closed.

Russian military base in Gyumri, Armenia, August 18, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

“The officers live well here, they all have cars. They have expensive flats. The area near the base, where they all live, is highly regarded. Generally, they live better there than the locals do. Armenians used to live well here, too, and the Russian women went out with our boys. But now they don’t pay any attention. In fact, the only people who have good jobs here are the Russians.”

The smoke in the room is now so thick that Aram starts to cough. “But the more you earn, the more you spend, right? We also benefit from it here.”

Russian defense work appeared in Gyumri at the start of the nineteenth century, with a few garrisons. The contingent grew during the Soviet period. From 1920 onward, Soviet soldiers were based here permanently. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Armenia found itself between two enemies – Turkey and Azerbaijan – Yerevan and Moscow signed an agreement.

There are a few checkpoints located in the western part of the town. As you enter through one of them, there is a sign with a large Russian emblem with the inscription “The Russian Army – honor of our people, living one life together.”

In case of threat, this army is obligated to defend the Armenian–Turkish border. However, sometimes the Armenians have to defend themselves against the Russians.

In 2015, A Russian soldier named Valeriy Permyakov shot an entire family from Gyumri. This caused an uproar among the locals. They came out en masse to protest in front of the military base, demanding a fair punishment. Activist and Gyumri local council member Levon Barsegyan says that this event divided the town’s history into before and after the shooting.

The building on the right belongs to the Russian military, Gyumri, Armenia, August 18, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

“We never traditionally locked our doors at night. But after that incident, as far as I know, everybody started to lock them. We occasionally have small incidents, drunken fights, but that was the first serious crime. And now no one is safe.”

To begin with, a lot of people projected their hatred for Permyakov on all the Russian servicemen. However, in both Panik and Gyumri the anger eventually faded.

“If you talk to people, they’ll say that they generally live in peace with the soldiers,” Barsegyan says. “If a Russian soldier comes to the house and asks for bread and water,  then they’ll be fed and watered and sent on their way in peace. We’re not animals here. The only grievance that remains is Permyakov’s punishment. Many people think that he should have been handed over to the Armenia justice system, and not tried in Russia.”

The activist explains that this was largely up to the former president Serzh Sargsyan, who gave the Russians the green light for everything: “If he had insisted at the time, then the killer would have remained in an Armenian prison. Now, after the revolution, they would not have let Permyakov go. Nikol Pashinyan would not have forgiven that.”

Guaranteed (in)security

Gyumri played an important role in the Velvet Revolution. It was here that it all started. Before the protests began in Yerevan, Pashinyan travelled to cities throughout Armenia, starting with Gyumri. Barsegyan takes us to the square where it started.

He smiles: “After the victory, the locals started to joke: if you want to succeed, then you have to start in the town of Gyumri!”

Levon Barsegyan on the square in Gyumri, where PM Nikol Pashinyan began his procession across Armenian cities during the Velvet Revolution, Armenia, August 18, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

Despite the fact that foreign media often made the Armenian revolution out to be pro-West and anti-Russian, that was not the case. No one was waving slogans relating to foreign policy. The majority of the demands focused on solving the country’s internal issues.

After Pashinyan’s initial victory in the wake of the revolution, he constantly emphasized that he would cooperate equally with Russia and with the West. However, Russia remains one of Armenia’s key partners in terms of security, as well as the economy and politics. The first leader Pashinyan met with as Prime Minister was Vladimir Putin. They have met a few times since then.

Gyumri, Armenia, August 18, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

“It was a pro-Armenian revolution first and foremost,” Barsegyan says. It seems as though he has spent a lot of time explaining this to foreigners. “It wasn’t pro-West, or pro-Russian or pro-Australian. There’s no point in looking for orders from outside, there simply aren’t any.”

As we walk to the square, people come over to Barsegyan, asking him about Yerevan, Pashinyan and politics. It seems as though everyone in the town knows him.  

Gyumri, Armenia, August 18, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

“There was no anti-Russian feeling during the revolution,” Barsegyan says, commenting on the atmosphere in the city during the protests. “But it turned out that someone wrote on Facebook: ‘From now on Russian marines are going to come to the square and beat and kill everyone!’ They were probably trying to intimidate people so they would stay at home. But of course there was no action from the soldiers. There was nothing that could have been regarded as Russian interference in internal Armenian affairs. At the end of the day, the base here should be a guarantee of security.”

– Do you not worry that this guarantee of security could turn into a guarantee of insecurity? Like what happened in Sevastopol after the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine?

Gyumri, Armenia, August 18, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

“I am certain that there are no such risks for us. Before, a lot of people said that Russia could provide military support to our former government to suppress an uprising in case of unrest. But nothing like that happened. I think the Kremlin knew that it couldn’t have deployed troops against the Armenian people,” Barsegyan replies.

On the whole, the revolution did not have any effect on the Armenian people’s attitude towards Rusians. But it’s not the same story vice versa. Aram the hostel owner smokes the last cigarette of the pack.

Gyumri, Armenia, August 18, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan/Hromadske

“Recently, a lot of people have been saying that there wouldn’t have been a revolution without American intervention. Like we wouldn’t have been able to do it on our own! And especially because the U.S. has the biggest embassy here in the whole region… I think they say this to devalue our efforts and our victory.”

– Who says that?

Aram takes another drag and exhales the smoke.

“Mostly Russian Armenians and Russians. They’ll probably never be able to come to terms with it. Damned if I know.”

/By Ostap Yarysh and Oleksandr Kokhan