Tag Archives: Armenia

Armenia Gets a Monument to Kalashnikov

A monument to the legendary Russian arms-designer, creator of the AK-rifle series, Mikhail Kalashnikov, has been erected in Armenia. The full-length statue of the man whose weapons came to epitomize Russian/Soviet military might was placed in the northern town of Gyuimri, the site of Russia’s lone military base in the South Caucasus.  

The Kalashnikov monument will be unveiled officially and a museum will open on November 8, according to a press-release from the 102nd military base, cited by RIA Novosti. The base commander, Colonel Andrei Ruzinski, came up with the idea last year, when Kalashnikov passed away, leaving behind the legacy of what Russia says is the world’s most popular rifle.

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Hungary appears to have sold Azeri axe murderer for $7 million

Documents uncovered this week suggest that the Orbán government’s motivation for handing back to Azerbaijan Ramil Safarov, the Azeri axe murder convicted of killing an Armenian army lieutenant in Hungary, may have been financial gain. In 2012, Hungary earned global scorn for transferring the murderer to a country where he was welcomed as a hero.

At the time, Hungary tried to explain away its actions by claiming that it fully expected the murderer to continue serving his prison sentence, considering that he had been sentenced to life by a Hungarian court. Of course, this did not happen–Ramil Safarov was not only pardoned, but was also promoted to the rank of major in Azerbaijan’s military immediately after his release from Hungary. The government of Viktor Orbán claimed in 2012 that it had been misled and expressed “disappointment.”

Continue reading Hungary appears to have sold Azeri axe murderer for $7 million

Safarov extradition prelude to April war – Artsakh Ombudsman

The Human Rights Defender of Artsakh is on a visit to Budapest, Hungary, to attend an International Conference on “Victims of armed conflicts at the juncture of international humanitarian law and human rights law.”

The Conference has been organized by the foreign affairs agencies of Hungary and Switzerland.

Continue reading Safarov extradition prelude to April war – Artsakh Ombudsman

Armenia Hopes to Become Glittering Gateway for Russian Diamonds

A diamond deal that gives Armenia duty-free access to rough diamonds from Russia could offer Alrosa, the semi-government-owned Russian diamond company that provides roughly 27 percent of the world’s rough-diamond supplies, a dodge from potential European-Union sanctions, Armenian diamond-industry professionals believe.

About half of Alrosa’s yearly sales occur through the international diamond market in Antwerp, Belgium, a member of the EU. Although the company, which accounts for the bulk of Russia’s diamond mining, does not yet feature on a sanctions list for Russian actions in Ukraine, it has stated that it has begun to work “out some options for reducing this risk;” namely, by increasing sales to clients “in other jurisdictions.”

Enter Armenia. Once the center of the Soviet Union’s diamond-refining operations, the South-Caucasus country today counts on exports of refined diamonds for about 10 percent of its total annual volume of approximately $1 billion in exports.

That share has slumped dramatically over the past decade from a peak of 40 percent in the early 2000’s (diamond exports peaked at $327 million in 2003), but Armenian refiners see the diamond agreement with Russia as a way for the sector to regain its financial sparkle.

“This is a great opportunity,” Edgar Hovhannisian, the general director of Dimotech, an Armenian refining factory owned by Antwerp -based Rosy Blue, one of the world’s top diamond manufacturers. “We are expanding, [and] have ordered a half a million dollars’ worth of machines in anticipation of a higher volume of production.”

Under the terms of the agreement, ratified in late June, Armenian importers would be able to purchase an unlimited amount of rough diamonds from Russia without paying the usual 6.5-percent duty. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the deal last December, before the Ukrainian crisis erupted. It is not contingent upon Armenia finally joining Putin’s trade club, the Eurasian Union.

To encourage things along, the Armenian government has dropped its 20-percent Value Added Tax on imported diamonds.

But the agreement with Moscow is not all glitter, critics warn. It effectively strengthens Armenia’s economic dependence on Russia; if Armenia joins the Union — the most recent projected date is this October – its refiners will have to pay an 18-percent duty on rough diamonds imported from outside countries, which may sell diamonds for lower prices.

Diamond refiners in the village of Nor Hatchn, the hub of Armenia’s diamond operations, about 60 kilometers north of the capital, Yerevan, see no problems with the deal, however. Only 20 of the 200-some diamond workshops that existed in Nor Hatchn during the early post-Soviet period still function today.

With access to duty-free Russian roughs to refine, though, “[t]he situation will shift significantly,” predicted Chaminda Nugara, Dimotech’s administration manager.

Dimotech, which employs 150 diamond workers, has opened a second factory in Armenia, and brought back ten artisans who left Armenia after the 2008 global financial crisis, when demand for refined diamonds slumped.

“Presently, a lot of the workshops [in Nor Hatchn] are non-functional, but I think many foreign investors would be attracted by the Russian rough diamonds; especially now that access to Russian raw materials will be getting harder for European manufacturers,” predicted Nugara.

A similar diamond deal with Russia coincided with the peak in Armenia’s diamond sector in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, when Antwerp-based Taché and Israeli diamond magnate Lev Levaev came to invest, and the country churned out annually between 200,000 to 370,000 carats of refined diamonds, according to official data.

Alrosa, though, has termed the discussion of possible EU sanctions “purely speculative.”  Nonetheless, as the Weekly Rapaport Report, a diamond-industry publication, has noted, it has begun to seek “alternative methods and markets for selling its diamonds;” most recently, by expanding exports to India, the company’s second largest market after Antwerp.

But not all experts share the optimism that Armenia will enjoy a diamond comeback as a result of its access to duty-free Alrosa diamonds.

For one, there’s the competition. Armenia does not rank among the top markets for Alrosa roughs. Drawing on Armenia’s traditional expertise in working with jewelry, the country’s hand-cut, refined diamonds have received industry certifications of excellence, but Dimotech’s Hovhannisian concedes that “Indians and the Chinese are… technologically more advanced.”

Concerns also exist about the fact that Russia does not allow Armenia to re-export the small, rough diamonds which can be included in a purchased batch and which are not considered cost-effective to refine.

Armen Yeganian, head of the Ministry of Economy’s industrial-policy department, told EurasiaNet.org, however, that the government is now negotiating with Moscow “to have the ban lifted.”

Kamo Dallakian, the director of Agates Company, a 10-person, Armenian-owned operation, reported no restrictions on a recent shopping trip to Moscow, however.

“We were granted the opportunity of a large selection,” Dallakian told EurasiaNet.org. The company already has exported its first batch of polished stones from the purchased rough Russian diamonds.

Like other interviewed companies, Agates is planning to expand in anticipation of outside demand for refined Russian diamonds.

Yerevan State University of Economics’ economist Ashot Yeghiazarian cautions, however, that “it cannot be ruled out that cooperation with [Alrosa] poses a serious risk.”

For now, though, it appears to be a risk that Armenia is willing to take.

Armenia: Shady Import of Lions and Tigers Raises Fears

The Yerevan neighbors of parliamentarian Mher Sedrakian, a member of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, have a persistent problem with noise. But this is not about wild parties or car horns. Rather, it is about lions.

Sedrakian’s alleged collection of lions, apparently kept as personal pets, constantly roars and scares the neighborhood, and no one can get them to stop, his neighbors complained to EurasiaNet.org recently.

Increasingly, many Armenians can understand that concern. Private zoos with lions, tigers and bears are emerging as a popular hobby for the wealthy and powerful in this tiny, South-Caucasus country, and the government does not seem inclined to intervene.

Instead, recent amendments to the Law on Wildlife, passed on April 12, could facilitate this pastime. Private citizens can own wild animals, including endangered species, if they have areas for the animals that ensure their “life, health and safety,” and prevent escape from captivity, the law reads. Supervision is supposed to be “constant.”

But it is not. Last November, tiger cubs were found in the streets of Etchmiadzin, a town about 20 kilometers from the capital, Yerevan, local media reported.

Although tigers, as an endangered species, cannot be exported from the wild, their import from zoos is allowed.

A search of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) database for 2008 to 2013 shows the import of six tigers to Armenia, including three Siberian tigers from Ukraine. The rest came from Belgium, Chile and Kazakhstan.

An Armenian Border Guard official, who declined to be named, explained to EurasiaNet.org that a tiger can be brought into the country if documents show its country of origin and demonstrate that it is the third generation of a zoo-based line of tigers. 

A CITES certificate that authorizes the animal’s shipment is also required, said Hovhannes Mkrtchian, head of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Food Security Department, which checks import documents and verifies the animals’ health.

But investigative reports by the news site Hetq.am indicate that not all of the exotic animals imported into Armenia – namely, an endangered bonobo – end up in the CITES database.

Similarly, though crocodiles were offered for sale in Yerevan supermarkets last December for New Year’s, the database contains no mention of their import as food products.

It does, however, show an array of exotic imports. Cheetahs topped the feline list, with 18 imports from the United Arab Emirates and South Africa between 2008 and 2013. Nine lions were brought in during the same period; most from the United Arab Emirates.

Forty-one dumbo-eared fennec foxes, natives of the Sahara, entered Armenia between 2009 and 2010, while 21 rheas, ostrich-like birds from South America, made the trip in 2012.

Whether or not these animals were meant for the Yerevan Zoo was not immediately clear.

Yerevan Zoo Director Ruben Khachatrian emphasized that his zoo is “making every effort to meet international standards,” and expressed regret that Armenia has developed a reputation for an illegal trade in wild animals.

“Because of certain persons, Armenia has a bad international image in terms of the unlawful trade in animals…” Khachatrian said. “[Individuals] can approach you at international conferences and ask with anxiety, ‘What is going on in your country?’”

The government launched a criminal investigation into the import of animals to Armenia after a Hetq.am investigation, but no breakthroughs have been announced. Caution could well temper prosecutors’ questions.

Among those Armenians known to have a taste for exotic wildlife is one of the country’s most powerful political players, millionaire businessman Gagik Tsarukian, head of the opposition Prosperous Armenia Party.

A 2009 YouTube video that showed a donkey placed in a cage of lions was widely reputed to have been filmed at Tsarukian’s Yerevan residence, which contains a private zoo.

His spokesperson, Iveta Tonoian, denied any connection to the case, but has stated that Tsarukian owns about two dozen lions and white tigers, which live “in perfect conditions.”

Tsarukian is not alone in his tastes. Former Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Manvel Grigorian, head of an influential organization of Karabakh-war veterans, keeps tigers, lions, bears and various birds in a private zoo in Etchmiadzin, a town about 20 kilometers from Yerevan.

According to Hetq.am, an allegedly toothless tiger also protects Grigorian’s Etchmiadzin house. The tiger cub found wandering in the town last year is believed to have belonged to the general, who has not responded to the allegations.

But holding any political figure to account on such a score is difficult.

The government never responded to environmentalists’ requests to see the documentation for the endangered brown bears allegedly owned by Tavush Region Governor Hovik Abovian.

The agriculture ministry’s Mkrtchian, however, maintains that “everything is done in accordance with procedures.”

“We do everything we can to ensure safety,” he said.

But it does not always work. In 2012, a lion, allegedly owned by a former police colonel, seriously injured a two-year-old child in a village not far from the Turkish border.

Environmentalist Silva Adamian, one of the few Armenian activists following this issue, argues that the Law on Wildlife simply does not work.

“Legislators should have the leverage to control the field, whereas the opposite is happening…” said Adamian.

Dining establishments throughout the country offer the meat of bears, boars and deer, all endangered in Armenia, on their menus. Bears also provide entertainment. They also can be spotted on the loose in Yerevan itself – twice within the last year.

No parliamentarian working on environmental issues could comment to EurasiaNet.org about these practices.

Civil society groups are not prepared to take up the issue either, claimed Adamian.

“The field is controlled by certain influential people, while society is so busy with other problems that it simply has no time to take an interest in these issues,” she said.

Meanwhile, the imports continue.

Nagorno-Karabakh – A mountainous conflict

A nasty war seems on the brink of flaring up again

THROUGH a slit in a stone bunker, soldiers from the Nagorno-Karabakh republic can see their Azeri foes just 150 metres away. In these mountains between two former Soviet republics, there are echoes of Ukraine. This summer was “more tense than before”, says an officer at the front of this long-simmering conflict.

Nagorno-Karabakh is run by ethnic Armenians but is legally part of Azerbaijan. Secession in 1988 led to a war that killed some 30,000 people. A shaky ceasefire ensued in 1994, with Azerbaijan losing 14% of its territory. Exchanges of fire along the front have long been common, but the clashes this year have been the worst since 1994.

Commando raids became frequent, adding to the usual sniper fire. And the action has spread to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, where civilians have become targets. Each side blames the other. Heavy Azeri losses at the start of August provoked bellicose rhetoric from the president, Ilham Aliyev. “The war is not over,” he declared. “Only the first stage of it is.”

Like a headmaster disciplining unruly students, Russia’s Vladimir Putin summoned Mr Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, for talks in Sochi in early August. Tensions cooled, but the parties are no closer to a settlement.

On September 2nd Mr Sargsyan congratulated Nagorno-Karabakh on the 23rd anniversary of its independence by calling the republic’s choice “an irreversible reality now”.

But it is Ukraine that casts an ominous shadow, “reinforcing the zero-sum mentality”, says Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. Trust in international mediators and security guarantees has frayed. Officials in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, detect double standards over sovereignty and self-determination.

They wonder why the West punishes Russia for annexing Crimea, but not Armenia for similar behaviour in Karabakh. Many ask why the West approves of Ukraine using force to restore territorial integrity, but insists on Azerbaijan’s peaceful patience.

As a result, Azerbaijan is “losing trust in the ability of the West to maintain a deterrent or a peaceful ceasefire,” says Matthew Bryza, a former American ambassador to Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan feels vulnerable. Russia provides a security guarantee for Armenia, where it has a military base and 4,000-5,000 troops. Azeri officials see the Western response to Ukraine as tepid, part of a worrying pattern of disengagement.

This perceived indifference has favoured a crackdown in Azerbaijan. Several anti-government activists have been arrested this year, some charged with treason. The bank accounts of NGOs have been frozen. International pressure was once a “brake mechanism” on Azerbaijan, says Sabine Freizer, at the Atlantic Council, but it may no longer work.

Azerbaijan’s new assertiveness has come with the weakening of two restraints: its military disadvantage and the prospect of a diplomatic settlement. Riding a wave of petrodollars, Azerbaijan’s annual defence budget rose from $177m in 2003 to $3.4 billion in 2013.

Purchases include sophisticated weapons from Israel, Turkey and Russia. The country has a new and inexperienced defence minister.

Armenia has built up its forces and defences too. Even so, Mr Putin used its sense of vulnerability to persuade it to apply for membership of the Eurasian union, his pet project.

The risk of open war remains low, but the militarisation of the borders and the willingness to use violence creates “the risk of a war by accident”, says Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Centre. The consequences would be disastrous, drawing in Russia, Turkey and Iran, and potentially feeding unrest in the Middle East.

The framework of a peace plan exists, hinging on the return of seven de jure Azerbaijani districts around Nagorno-Karabakh in exchange for the republic’s right to decide its own status.

A mountainous conlict

But in Stepanakert, the capital, leaders insist that a settlement is impossible without a seat at the table for Karabakh, which is represented by Armenia. Even then, a compromise that includes returning territory to Azerbaijan is “unrealistic”, says Nagorno-Karabakh’s prime minister, Arayik Harutyunyan.

While Stepanakert seems peaceful, the people steel themselves for what many see as an inevitable return to violence. Zhanna Galstyan, head of the Nagorno-Karabakh parliament’s defence committee, recalls an adage of Chekhov: “If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, at some point in the play it must go off.”

Putin’s Armenia Shock — Protests break out against a Russian ally in the Caucasus

Demonstrators wave national flags during a protest rally against a hike in electricity prices in Yerevan, Armenia on June 27.
Demonstrators wave national flags during a protest rally against a hike in electricity prices in Yerevan, Armenia on June 27

Ten thousand protesters over the weekend poured into the streets of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, defying the government’s crackdown. Russian-media reactions suggest the Kremlin is nervous, as Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is a close Moscow ally.

The so-called Electric Yerevan protests erupted this month after the state utilities commission announced a 17% rise in electricity rates, and they have steadily grown.

At issue isn’t merely the electricity price-hike in a country with 17% unemployment but the Russian domination of the local economy and the corruption and cronyism that are hallmarks of the Kremlin business model.

The local electricity provider, the Armenian Electricity Network, is a subsidiary of Russia’s Inter RAO, whose chairman, Igor Sechin, is a close friend of President Vladimir Putin.

The protesters allege the company is corrupt, and on Saturday Mr. Sargsyan conceded their demand for an audit. He also suspended the price hike, which was set to begin in August, until the audit is complete.

The Armenian leader and his Russian patrons seem to have grasped the depth of national feeling. The Kremlin over the weekend lent $200 million in military aid to Armenia, which has a long-standing territorial dispute with neighboring Azerbaijan.

Moscow also agreed to move the trial of a Russian soldier suspected of murdering an Armenian family in January to an Armenian court.

At stake for Mr. Putin are his military investments in Armenia. Home to some 3,000 troops, the 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia, is a crucial Russian beachhead in the South Caucasus corridor, without which Moscow can’t control the Caspian Sea and Central Asia.

Mr. Putin considers the Caucasus part of Russia’s imperial domain, and the Kremlin carved out bits of sovereign territory in the region in its 2008 assault on Georgia. Mr. Putin also wants stability in his Eurasian Economic Union, which Armenia joined this year.

The U.S. and Europe should aim to deny further Russian encroachments by encouraging westward steps. But no such determination is in evidence.

The European Union last month diluted its commitment to the Eastern Partnership countries, which include the South Caucasus states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. By denying such states a clear path to association, Europe pushes them into Mr. Putin’s sphere.

The U.S., meanwhile, took a stance on Twitter. “Concerned by tense situation downtown,” the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan tweeted over the weekend. “Urge all sides to display peaceful, restrained behavior befitting democratic values.” That’s nice.

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