FRIENDS LIKE THESE
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan was effusive and full of warm platitudes: “We deeply cherish our friendship with the United States and are pleased that through the joint efforts we have elevated our bilateral partnership to a qualitatively new level... We attach great importance to the deepening of the multifaceted Armenian-American cooperation and value your assistance...”429
Writing to President Barack Obama in 2014, the exiguous Armenian leader was fulsome in his praise. So he may. With their unexplained billions in personal wealth, politicians Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan have been happy to accept largesse.
And while holding out the hand of friendship, at the same time the Caucasus nation has been holding a grenade in the other...
Indeed a whole arsenal.
Perhaps no other nation in post-Soviet space received greater support from Washington during the difficult transition from totalitarianism and a command economy to democracy and open markets.
Washington’s Freedom for Russia and Emerging Eurasian Democracies and Open Markets Support Act was enacted in October 1992.430 This aimed to support the fifteen successor states of the Soviet Union.
The February 1995 United States General Accounting Office report to Congress on United States Bilateral Programmes to the former Soviet Union does not make the best of reading. For fiscal years 1990 through 1993, 19 United States Government agencies committed a total of $10.1 billion for bilateral grants, donations, and credit programmes to former Soviet states.431
In every statistical table published within the report, Armenia is either the biggest single recipient of support, or second to the Russian Federation. Yet despite this backing from Washington, the General Accounting Office’s references to Armenia make pretty dismal reading, including criticism of the United States Department of Agriculture’s programmes in Armenia, as slow and with questionable success at market development, programmes hampered as ‘the Armenian Government failed to pass a budget’ and notes how ‘high-level political battles over small amounts of money’ hampered the process.432
Under this and other programmes, Washington has provided more than $2 billion in humanitarian and technical assistance to Armenia, according to Bridget Brink, United States Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.433 It was a figure agreed by former United States Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch who wrote in Inside a United States Embassy: Diplomacy at Work that: Over the past 18 years, the United States had provided nearly $2 billion in assistance to Armenia, the highest per capita amount for a post-Soviet state.434
Some in the United States had begun to question their politician’s unquestioned support. The New York Sun wrote of: A close ally of Russia, with a grossly corrupt economy and a ruler accused of increasing authoritarianism, Armenia hardly seems a prime candidate for massive doses of American aid money. Yet this tiny South Caucasus republic receives more American aid per capita than any other country except Israel... Armenians can thank one of the most effective and well-organised ethnic lobbies on Capitol Hill for the windfall. With wealthy backing and strong grassroots support, America’s million-strong Armenian population, concentrated in the north-east and California, has for years successfully lobbied for increased aid.435
The Armenian National Committee of America and Armenian Assembly of America, largest and most influential of a burgeoning number of Armenian American grassroots political organisations, have led a highly effective pro-Armenia lobby.436 The strength of this can be derived from its concentration in a select number of congressional districts, such as California’s 28th, while half of all Armenian-Americans live in just 20 congressional districts, allowing them to project themselves as a voting bloc.
This lobby stalks Washington’s corridors of power and has very effectively won influence, using political donations and efficient public relations. The likes of Republican Congressmen Mark Kirk and Democrat Frank Pallone were induced to write official letters to the head of state of an unrecognised pariah territory, the Republic of Artsakh.
Legislators like Anthony Portantino, Barbara Boxer, Scott Wilk and Robert Menendez are similarly known for their leanings.
If influence peddling represents the scourge of good government, money represents its poison. The Open Dialogue Research Journal notes that: the Armenian lobby in the United States is very similar to the Gulenists in Turkey, in that they represent a shadowy power network with a concrete geopolitical agenda advanced through manipulative means.437
Beyond Sargsyan’s effusive celebration of Armenia-United States political ties, and also Washington’s $2 billion cash inflows to Yerevan, are perhaps Armenia’s actions. Kirk, Pallone, Portantino, Boxer, Wilk and Menendez, and the constituents who vote for them, should perhaps take note of how Armenia has responded to this largesse. And, in particular, that of the nation’s leadership, not least the deeply cherishing Sargsyan.
In late 2008, Washington concluded that Armenia had supplied Iran with consignments of rockets and machine guns.438 These had begun to surface in Iraq, at that time in the grip of sectarian violence following the United States-led 2003 invasion.
When Yerevan’s arms sales reached the hands of militants, battling with United States forces, and resulted in casualties, investigations into the source of these lead backward through Iraq, Iran and to Armenia. Needless to say, Washington was unhappy that a supposed ally, and recipient of generous aid, was quietly selling weapons that were now claiming the lives of United States servicemen. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed their concerns with President Sargsyan, on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly, he was adamant that no transfer occurred.439
And, for this, Sargsyan would be pinned as a blatant liar. His strong denials would unravel quickly, and much to the fury of the Americans.
WikiLeaks would bring this whole affair into the open. A secret State Department cable 134490, summarised that: In 2003, Armenia facilitated Iran’s purchase of rockets and machine guns. In 2007, some of these weapons were recovered from two Shia militant attacks in which a United States soldier was killed and six others were injured in Iraq. The Secretary discussed our concerns with President Sargsyan on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly, but he denied any transfer occurred. The direct role of high-level Armenian officials and the link of the weapons to an attack on United States forces make this case unique and highly troubling. These transfers may provide a basis for sanctions pursuant to United States legal authorities.
We propose a series of steps that Armenia will need to take to prevent future transfers, which will be weighed in to the consideration of sanctions. We hope to use the threat of sanctions as a tool to generate Armenian responsiveness so that we will not be forced to impose sanctions measures.
The Deputy Secretary is writing to President Sargsyan and indicating that a team will be sent to Armenia to seek written agreement that Armenia will take steps to ensure that it does not become a source of weapons for Iran or other states or groups of concern.
The team will also present additional information that will make clear why the United States is convinced that the transfers happened and make it unreasonable for Sargsyan to continue his denials. We anticipate that the team will travel to Yerevan in the coming weeks, to provide sufficient time for the incoming Administration to be briefed on the situation.440
The President of Armenia had been caught out in his deceit by Secretary of State Rice. His falsehoods threatened his nation’s relationship just as much as the transgression that had occurred. In response to his outright denials, State Department cable 134490, also details a letter sent to the Armenian President by John D. Negroponte, Deputy Secretary of State at the time, which expressed “deep concerns about Armenia’s transfer of arms to Iran which resulted in the death and injury of United States soldiers in Iraq.”441
Negroponte also wrote that: By law, the transfer of these weapons requires us to consider whether there is a basis for the imposition of United States sanctions. If sanctions are imposed, penalties could include the cut off of United States assistance and certain export restrictions.442
It is worth noting that Armenia has proven itself an equal opportunities gun- runner – and played Moscow every bit as badly as it has Washington.
In 1991, Chechnya declared independence and preserved its de facto independence until a second war broke out. In 1999, Russian Government forces started an anti-terrorist campaign in Chechnya, in response to the invasion of Dagestan by Chechen-based Islamic forces and, by early 2000, Russia almost completely destroyed the city of Grozny and succeeded in putting Chechnya under direct control of Moscow.
Despite the Kremlin’s ongoing material and political support for Yerevan, the 2001 Small Arms Survey, published by the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies notes that: Chechnya provides an intricate example of illicit small arms transfers. According to unofficial sources, the first such transfer occurred in May-June 1991, arranged between the ethnic Armenian militia in Nagorno-Karabakh and the National Congress of the Chechen People.
The militia in Nagorno-Karabakh began to arm itself with more modern small arms and light weapons obtained from Soviet military units stationed in the Caucasus. In turn, they got rid of their obsolete arms... Through Georgian paramilitary middlemen, a significant number of Armenian small arms were traded for oil and oil products from Chechnya. The storming of the government offices of the Chechnya-Ingushetia Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and the seizure of Russian Federation military installations in Chechnya by armed
Chechen rebels was actually carried out using these weapons of Armenian origin.443
For its $2 billion, the United States believed that it was supporting an ally in post-Soviet space. Perhaps this would even counter increasing Russian influence in Yerevan.
Despite this aid, when it came to the big decisions, Yerevan fell in with Moscow. In 2015, for example, following a discussion with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Sargsyan announced that his country would affiliate for trade purposes with the Eurasian Economic Union – Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan – rather than the European Union.444 Armenia linked itself to Moscow’s strategic orbit.
Both Washington and Moscow had been played.
Indeed, for all the glad-handing proffered by Kirk, Pallone, Portantino, Boxer, Wilk and Menendez, et al, and President Vladimir Putin’s generous economic and military aid, the extent of the government of Armenia’s intentions can be found some 200 kilometres from the country’s capital.
A visit to Zorats Karer – often referred to as the Armenian Stonehenge – can be a little underwhelming. Stonehenge, after all, is Stonehenge. Nevertheless Zorats Karer’s stone settings, burial costs and standing stones, some 200 plus stones, dot the landscape and create a unique scene that dates from the Middle Bronze Age to the Iron Age. According to archaeoastronomers, many of the standing stones were likely used for astronomical observation.445
Zorats Karer provided us with a cover story. We are here to see something far more contemporary. Not far from the town of Sisian, just off the Yerevan- Meghri highway, lays an airstrip.446
39°32′49′′N 046°03′25′′E are the coordinates.
Sisian Airport is one of the first in Armenia for civil flight, and later reverted to military use. Indeed, it remains under the purview of the Ministry of Defense and when Hetq Online asked the defense ministry about the technical state of Sisian, Garnik Hayrapetyan, the Ministry’s chief of staff, confirmed that it remains functioning and has radio and navigation equipment. Hayrapetyan also noted that Sisian is still in official use.447 The Sisian airstrip is little used. But that does not mean it does not have a big impact.
While visitors generally enter Armenia via Zvartnots International Airport, there are those who prefer the remoteness of Sisian. Ukrainian national Leonid Minin448 was one. He was well-known in the somewhat sleepy town nearby. Surrounded by the Zangezur and Bargushat Mountains, and situated on the shores of the Vorotan River, Sisian is undoubtedly picturesque. If a little basic.
We opt to stay at the three-star Basen Hotel. The sleepy town gets its share of visitors, but every few weeks this particular hotel receives a handful of Americans, Uzbeks, Iranians and others.
Clearly not tourists, they are notable for their upmarket automobiles. Not many Hummer H3s in these parts.
They huddle on the hotel’s well-appointed terrace and quietly go about their business. Basen Hotel’s manager, a welcoming lady from the town itself, named Hasmik Asatrian-Azoyan, tells us that they pay cash, remain polite and that, usually, after a plane lands at the airstrip they leave quickly.
The whole process repeats periodically.
Broadcast on international satellite channels, as almost everywhere else in the world, it is probably a popular programme among Armenian television audiences. Every week, viewers tune in to watch the escapades of the Sons of Anarchy, a tightly-knit club of outlaws whose main source of income comes from trafficking arms to criminal enterprises, domestically and internationally. Although the show has established a cult following and has won numerous awards, it highlights a dangerously relevant issue. The global arms trafficking industry is valued at over $60 billion.
Studies have shown that illicit arms trafficking fuels civil wars, leads to high crime rates, and – perhaps most disturbingly – supplies the arsenals of some of the Western world’s most dangerous terrorist enemies.
Sons of Anarchy is undoubtedly good viewing. And indeed may fly close to home for an audience in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. If one substitutes the denim and leather of an outlaw motorcycle club with the suits and ties of the National Assemblies in Yerevan and Stepanakert, there may indeed be some interesting parallels.
Armenia’s connection to the arms trade goes back a long way. Perhaps it was borne of necessity.
Britain, for example, has continued to impose an arms embargo on Yerevan, a ban on the export of ‘arms and related material’449 enforced in line with the United Nations, the European Union, or the Organisation for Security and Co- operation in Europe. This covers military ammunition, weapons and goods.
In July 2014, Whitehall refined its interpretation of the Arms Embargo as covering all goods and items on the nation’s Military List where this equipment could be used in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, or on the land border between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
While Moscow has consistently stepped into the breach where other arms supplying nations have held back, due to Nagorno-Karabakh, the nation has become a hub for arms shipments.
There are three primary reasons for this: The Artsakh Defense Army needs weaponising, the needs of Armenia’s own armed forces go beyond agreements made with the Moscow, and simply, money.
In 2005, for example, an arms sale led by one Artur Solomonyan, from Yerevan, was interrupted by United States law enforcement. Solomonyan and others were arrested amid a plot to smuggle Russian-made military weapons into the United States, including rocket-propelled grenades, shoulder-fired ‘Stinger’ missiles, Russian-made AK-47 assault rifles and mines.450
According to charges filed by the FBI, Solomonyan was selling 200 rocket- propelled grenades from Armenia, his stock having been bought from the Russian military in Chechnya and shipped to Armenia.
As proof he had the goods in his possession, Solomonyan showed an FBI informant pictures of those weapons, taken in Armenia where they were stored.
Solomonyan was also touting a supply of enriched uranium from his base in Yerevan, which he suggested to an informant could be used in the New York subway system, according to the complaint. His claim was not treated with much seriousness by United States authorities, although in 2016 former Prime Minister Hrant Bagratyan announced that his country was in possession of relevant materials and told the media: “Nuclear weapons are already created in Armenia.”451
Bagratyan’s somewhat surprising comments nevertheless do have some interesting aspects to them in that the country has been tagged with dabbling in the weapons of the mass destruction business. In May 2002, the Department of State in Washington imposed sanctions against a company in Armenia for selling equipment and technology to Iran that would be useful in its programmes to develop weapons of mass destruction.452
Then-President Kocharyan rushed to end any contacts between the firm, Lysine, and Tehran’s would-be bomb-makers.
Gun running has long been a lucrative local business. One well known name in the trade locally was Nagorno-Karabakh War veteran Jirayr Sefilyan, who imported weapons into the country and sold them on to the highest bidder. In Yerevan he won a reputation as many foreign groups’ dealer of choice.453
His success changed his outlook, however, and he went from gun-runner to self-appointed freedom fighter in his own country, launching a short-lived opposition movement, Sasna Tsrer, which was implicated in a botched 2016 coup attempt in Yerevan.
Sentenced to ten years imprisonment, the myth of Sefilyan has only grown since then. As late as June 2018, an appeal hearing in Yerevan collapsed into chaos when Sefilyan, now self-styled leader of the Founding Parliament opposition movement, could not be brought before a court due to the police having difficulties with his supporters and the dangers handling him.
Another well-known name in the business is former Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Minister Samvel Babayan. While in office he developed a tidy sideline in arms shipments, using his position to ferry weapons, via Georgia, on to Iran and beyond.
As reported in The Armenian Weekly, the country’s National Security Service said that it had “credible information” linking him to arms shipments, including a shoulder-fired surface-to-air rocket system.454 In March 2004, Babayan was imprisoned for launching an assassination attempt against Arkady Ghukasian,455 then head of Nagorno-Karabakh, and served four years behind bars. Yet this failed to tame him. On November 28th, 2017, an Armenian court sentenced Babayan to six years in prison for weapons smuggling and money laundering.456 The once-powerful general had denied claims that he promised to pay $50,000 on delivery of a portable surface-to-air missile to Armenia.
In June 2018 the National Security Service swooped on two well-known arms peddlers. During a series of dawn raids the Etchmiadzin home, business premises and warehouses belonging to Member of Parliament Manvel Grigoryan, a retired army general and former Deputy Defense Minister, were raided. Grigoryan was arrested as hundreds of AK-47s and a wealth of munitions were discovered.
The same day and also in Etchmiadzin, Artur Asatryan, also known as Don Pipo in organised crime circles, was also the subject of a National Security Service action and found to be in possession of a vast arsenal.457
Armenia’s role in the business of illicit arms was also beginning to have international implications. In 2018, the European Observatory of Crimes and Security reported that Spanish Police had launched a major crackdown on “the Armenian Mafia”, in Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, Alicante and Albacete, who were connected to arms trafficking.458
The Armenian Weekly reported that Piotr Switalski, head of the European Union Delegation in Yerevan, has urged authorities to conduct “transparent” investigations.459 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty also reported Switalski’s comments.
“The arms business is not the vegetable trade. It always has a dark side that can lead to certain negative outcomes,” says former Armenian Foreign Minister, Edward Nalbandian.460
He should take a trip to 39°32′49′′N 046°03′25′′ and see one of the illicit hubs of the industry. So, too, should United States National Security Advisor John Bolton. While visiting Yerevan on October 25th, 2018, Bolton’s words cannot have been good listening to his audience in the country, especially when he stated that the Armenian-Iranian border is “going to be a significant issue.”461
The hawkish Bolton called Tehran “...the world’s central banker of international terrorism...”462 If this is true, then for its enthusiastic pursuit of the proceeds generated through arms trafficking, Yerevan represents one of its most significant branches.
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