Protesters scuffle with police in Gyumri. (Screen grab from the video at the bottom of the article.)

Hundreds of Armenians took to the streets on Wednesday and Thursday, demanding that a Russian soldier who confessed to killing six members of an Armenian family be turned over to the Armenian authorities. He is currently in the hands of the Russian military at their base in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city.

According to the Armenian police, the soldier, Valery Permyakov, admitted that he left the base and walked two kilometres into town, where he entered a house “by accident” and killed the people he found inside. The police said he shot six people – a couple, their daughter, their son, their daughter-in-law, and their 2-year old granddaughter. Their six-month-old grandson was stabbed, but survived. Permyakov, a Siberian conscript who had only arrived at the base two months earlier, was arrested Monday by Russian border guards at the border with Turkey. Police said his motive remains unclear.

He was taken into custody by the Russian military, which is keeping him locked up at the Gyumri base. The Armenian authorities also announced that an investigation would be conducted jointly by Russian and Armenian law enforcement. This has outraged many Gyumri residents, who see this as a breach of the nation’s sovereignty, invoking a 1997 treaty that stipulates that Russian military personnel in the South Caucasus who are suspected of committing crimes outside their bases should be dealt with by the local authorities. In a statement, Armenia's prosecutor general argued that Russia's constitution forbids the extradition of Russian nationals to foreign states.

Protests first broke out Wednesday in Gyumri and on Thursday spread to the nation’s capital, Yerevan.

Police blocked protesters in front of the Russian embassy in Yerevan on Thursday. At 1'58, protesters trample a Russian flag. Video courtesy of RFE/RL.

Russia’s military base in Gyumri was established in 1995 after Russia helped broker a ceasefire to the Armenia-Azerbaijan war. Armenians see the base as a deterrent on its sensitive border with Turkey, with which it has a troubled relationships.Turkey still denies the 1915 Armenian genocide ever took place.

“The protesters are disappointed with our government, with how weak it is”

Levon Barseghyan is a member of Gyumri’s city council and one of the leaders of the protest movement.

When the massacre occurred, Gyumri’s residents were shocked. But they didn’t immediately protest. Most people here are pro-Russian, and have good relationships with the military personnel at the base. However, people became angry when Permyakov was handed over to the Russians for no good reason, and even more so when our nation’s prosecutor announced Wednesday that he would be tried on Armenian soil… but didn’t say that he would be tried in an Armenian court! Everyone understands this to mean that he will probably be tried at the Russian military tribunal in our capital. We fear that the military may try to protect their own.

Protesters in the streets of Gyumri on Wednesday. 

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened here. In 1999, two soldiers from the base went on a shooting spree in our city’s streets. They killed two people. They were put on trial in an Armenian court, but they were then extradited to Russia. People who commit crimes in Armenia should be tried by Armenian courts, and serve their time in Armenian prisons.

The protesters are disappointed with our government, with how weak it is. It is very much under the control of the Kremlin. Of course, this isn’t surprising, since it was not elected by the people – there were major violations during the last election.  Still, we hope it will be forced to react to this public outcry.

Protesters in Gyumri on Wednesday. At 6'20, they break through a police line and head to the Russian military base. 

Post written with France 24 journalist Gaelle Faure (@gjfaure).