Residents of the Georgian capital Tbilisi have expressed their solidarity with neighbouring Armenia, which is reeling from the bloody murder of seven members of the same family by a Russian serviceman in the northern city of Gyumri.
Georgians and members of the local Armenian community paid their respects to the dead by laying floral tributes and lighting candles outside the Armenian Embassy in central Tbilisi on Saturday January 17. The event was organized on Facebook by Georgian Social Science student Giorgi Chinchaladze and attended by up to 60 people.
The Georgian capital is home to around 80,000 ethnic Armenians according to census data from 2002. There is also a sizeable Armenian population in the southern Samtskhe-Javakheti region, where they make up the majority of residents of two cities – Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda.
In the multicultural Tbilisi of the Russian Imperial period, the Armenian community formed the single largest ethnic group and the influence and wealth of the community is evident in the many Armenian-built mansions in the city’s older quarters. Tbilisi has also long been a centre of Armenian cultural life, home to poet and musician Sayat Nova, Soviet-era film maker Sergei Parajanov and writer Hovhannes Tumanyan.
Georgia’s Foreign Ministry also released a statement on Saturday condemning the “shocking and terrible” murders. Tbilisi Armenians also gathered in the Saint Etchmiadzin Armenian Apostolic Church in the Avlabari district on Sunday afternoon for a memorial service led by Bishop Vazgen, the leader of Georgia’s Armenian Apostolic faithful.
Armenia is still staggering in the wake of the fatal shooting on Monday of six members of the Avestisyan family in Gyumri, home to the 102nd Russian Military base. Russian serviceman Valery Permyakov has been charged with the murders of Seryozha Avetisyan, his wife, daughter, son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter after allegedly entering their house in search of drinking water. A six month-old baby who was also discovered at the scene with stab wounds was taken to hospital, but died a week later.
Permyakov fled the scene of the killings and was apprehended in the early hours of Tuesday morning by Armenian border guards in the vicinity of the Turkish border. His handover to Russian military commanders on Tuesday has angered locals, with daily protests in both Gyumri and the Armenian capital Yerevan demanding that Permyakov be handed back to Armenian law enforcement agencies.
“This is probably the first time in the history of Gyumri when the Military Base was semi-attacked,” Tbilisi-based journalist Arsen Kharatyan, who was at the protests in Gyumri and attended the rally in Tbilisi, told Global Voices. “Coins and small stones were thrown at the building. They were throwing money probably to show that the Armenian government sold out [to the Russian authorities].”
The failure to hand Permyakov to Armenian prosecutors is a source of ongoing tension between demonstrators and the authorities in Armenia. “Gyumri was always known to be more pro-Russian and it has a lot of its people working in Russia” Kharatyan adds. “This was a nerve that no one calculated would become such a big deal. The emotion is less anti-Russian, but people are starting to understand that the local authorities have no power when dealing with Russia.”
While Armenians have been directing their frustrations more at the government that at Russia, at the rally in Tbilisi there were clear currents of anti-Russian sentiment beneath a dominant mood of neighbourly solidarity. Next to the floral tributes outside the embassy, a sign was posted saying “Government of Armenia: Rid your country of an army of killers” in Armenian and Russian.
“As friends and neighbours, we share each other’s sorrows,” said Giorgi Badridze, former Georgian ambassador to the UK, at the rally. “I really appreciate that people without official association are showing their solidarity here.”
“As Georgians, we don’t believe that Russian troops bring with them stability, including to Armenia” he continued. “The Military presence doesn’t necessarily serve Armenian interests. They had hoped that Russia would be a guarantor of their security but this has ended badly in the past.”
University lecturer Giorgi Mchedlishvili echoed similar sentiments at the rally. “First and foremost this is the tragedy of one family, but it’s also a tragedy for the whole nation and I just want to express my sincere condolences,” he said.
“However, if [Permyakov] was mentally unstable, he shouldn’t have been allowed to serve in the Russian army, and therefore the country, Russia, bears responsibility,” he added.