Nairi Hunanian, an ex-journalist and former member of a stridently nationalist political movement, led a group of five gunmen in a murderous assault on the parliament. On October 27, as legislators gathered before live television cameras to quiz the cabinet during question time, the gunmen burst into the chamber, opened fire, and killed the prime minister, the speaker and six members of parliament. President Robert Kocharian went immediately to the parliament building and with physical courage and political skill negotiated the surrender of the gunmen to security authorities.

The gunmen’s only demand, which was granted, was to broadcast their position. Hunanian said his act was intended to sound the alarm in a country ruined by corruption and sunk in poverty. He made no mention of Karabakh, the territory in dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan that is at the center of most Armenian political debates. A spokesman for the Armenian Embassy in Moscow said: “They apologized for killing everyone except the prime minister, who they said deserved to die.”

Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and Speaker Karen Demirchian were political allies. Demirchian had led Armenia in the Soviet era. Sarkisian’s Unity Party had worked for the ouster of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian in 1998, which opened the way for Kocharian, a Karabakh native, to take the presidency. Kocharian named Sarkisian prime minister last June.

The assassinations occurred as the country appears to be moving toward an accommodation with Azerbaijan and perhaps a more pro-Western orientation in its foreign policy. President Kocharian met four times with Azerbaijan’s President Haidar Aliev in the past four months. He had completed a round of talks with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott just hours before the shootings. He is scheduled to meet with Boris Yeltsin in Russia November 5.

The assassinations occurred also as the economy appears to be improving after years of decline. Gross domestic product rose 7.2 percent in 1998 and 4.9 percent in the first half of 1999, despite lagging exports. Foreign investment flowing in through the privatization program, as well as foreign borrowing, has helped Armenia finance large current-account and budget deficits. Continued foreign support will be needed to sustain recent growth.