The death of Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, killed October 27 in a bizarre assault by five gunmen during a session of parliament, has halted the country’s slow progress toward a settlement with Azerbaijan of the ancient dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. The shift in the balance of political forces following the assassination has left President Robert Kocharian weak and isolated, unable to continue his risky negotiations with Azerbaijan’s President Haidar Aliev. Indeed he may be unable to continue much longer as Armenia’s president.

Vazgen Sarkisian was Armenia’s strongest political figure. He had broad support in the military and also controlled an 8,000-man paramilitary force, the Yekrapah (Country Defender) Union. Delegates to a national congress of Yerkrapah on December 4 called for presidential elections in 2000, with the idea of truncating Kocharian’s term after less than two years. Speaker after speaker suggested that Kocharian’s circle of allies were the main beneficiaries of the assassination and insinuated that Kocharian or his associates were behind the slaughter, in which eight government officials and parliamentarians died. Subsequently, military prosecutors investigating the assassination began questioning Kocharian’s adviser Aleksan Harutiunian, though whether as a witness or a suspect has not been revealed.

Although the Yerkrapah congress did not formally call for Kocharian’s ouster, the president appears to be losing support in the military. He has tried to rally other groups–primarily businessmen and clerics–but without success. His spokesman is still able to present the president’s position to the public on state-owned television. Any move by the Sarkisian camp to replace the TV station’s management should be read as a sign that a coup may be imminent.

Following the assassination, Kocharian broke off the series of bilateral negotiations he had initiated with Haidar Aliev last April, at the NATO summit in Washington. He also named as prime minister Vazgen Sarkisian’s brother Aram, a political novice. Neither action has mollified the military.

Kocharian came to the presidency as a Karabakh native and hardliner in the conflict with Azerbaijan. The military, which dominates the political parties and the political process, still takes a hard line on Karabakh and resents Kocharian’s conciliatory moves. The country’s economic hardships, whether blamed on the cost of the struggle with Azerbaijan, isolation from the global economy, or graft and corruption, leave the president with few supporters outside a “Karabakh clan” that is increasingly resented for its power. Kocharian, like his predecessor, seems destined to leave the presidency ahead of schedule.