Gunmen bursting into the Armenian parliament yesterday assassinated Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, Parliament Chairman Karen Demirchian and an as-yet-undetermined number of legislators and executive branch officials, wounding others and seizing scores as hostages inside the building. The terrorists struck during a question-and-answer session while most cabinet ministers were present in the chamber. The shooting was transmitted live on national radio’s broadcast of the session. The gunmen demanded air time for a political statement on national television and a getaway helicopter. President Robert Kocharian appeared on television to announce that he was personally directing security forces around the building and had the situation “under control” while seeking to obtain the release of the hostages. This morning, the terrorists released the hostages and gave themselves up to the authorities after Kocharian had addressed them via television, demanding a surrender and assuring the group of a fair trial.
The gunmen claimed to be carrying out a “coup d’etat”–a claim which was dismissed by Kocharian’s office on the grounds that the situation remains stable in the city of Yerevan and throughout the country. They were led by Nairi Hunanian, an ex-journalist and former member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF)-Dashnaksutiun. Hunanian’s brother and uncle were among the gunmen in the parliament building. The ARF’s organization in Armenia announced yesterday that Hunanian had been expelled in 1992 from its ranks and had not had any connection with it since. Local reports suggest that Hunanian spent part of the intervening period in the Crimea.
Hunanian and other gunmen spoke about their motives to several journalists, whom they allowed to leave the parliament building, and also in a telephone interview with a Yerevan television station. They claimed to be carrying out a “patriotic deed” to “punish the authorities for what they do to the nation” and described the ruling group in government and parliament as profiteers, “drinking the blood of the people” and stifling Armenia’s development. They had made Sarkisian their primary target as the leader and symbol of the ruling establishment (Armenian National Radio and Television, Noyan-Tapan, AP, Reuters, Agence France Presse, October 27).
Although the gunmen’s past links with the ARF may reflect ultranationalism, they did not mention concern for Karabakh among the motives behind their action. Negotiations with Azerbaijan over Karabakh have been handled by Kocharian, not by Sarkisian; the latter’s position on Karabakh was in any case more intransigent than Kocharian’s.
Sarkisian was Armenia’s closest approximation of a strongman and kingmaker, underscoring the decisive role of the military and security establishment in the country’s politics. Born in 1959, trained as a sports teacher, and launched on a budding literary career, Sarkisian was among the founders in 1988 of the movement in Armenia for unification with Karabakh. He became the country’s first defense minister and commanded volunteers from Armenia proper in the Karabakh war against Azerbaijan. A minister of state in 1993-95, re-appointed defense minister in 1995, Sarkisian is generally believed to have been instrumental in rigging–together with the then-ministers of Internal Affairs and National Security–the 1995 parliamentary election and the 1996 presidential election. Sarkisian played a key role in the 1998 ouster of president Levon Ter-Petrosian and the selection of Robert Kocharian as acting president, ahead of the pre-term presidential election, which Kocharian won–owing again to Sarkisian’s support.
As defense minister, Sarkisian turned the paramilitary organization Yerkrapah [Country Defender] into his political instrument, operating through its territorial organizations to control the administration and political life. Earlier this year he also took personal control of the Republican Party and joined forces with Demirchian’s People’s Party in the electoral bloc Miasnutiun [Unity], which won the May 1999 parliamentary elections. Officially, the bloc won a plurality of the parliamentary elections; but some deputies are known to have been unofficially sponsored by Sarkisian, who thus possessed an absolute majority in parliament.
Sarkisian had close connections with Russia’s military establishment, as does his handpicked successor as defense minister since June 1999, Lieutenant-General Vagharshak Harutiunian. Sarkisian, moreover, had pursued a personal “military diplomacy” seeking to involve Greece, Greek Cyprus, Syria, Iran and Bulgaria (when pro-Russian forces still ruled the latter country) in various combinations against Turkey. Those tactics, serving Russian policies in a wide area from the Balkans to the Middle East, bore no relation to Armenia’s national interests. Armenia’s presidents and Foreign Ministry lacked the clout to interfere with Sarkisian’s personal diplomacy.
Kocharian had no choice this June but to appoint Sarkisian prime minister. Already indebted to Sarkisian for selecting him as president, Kocharian ended up dependent on Sarkisian for a working majority in parliament and indeed for government adherence to presidential policies. In relinquishing the defense minister’s post for that of prime minister, Sarkisian put his loyalists in control of the Defense Ministry–that institution which has substantially shaped the outcomes of Armenia’s two parliamentary elections and two presidential elections held between 1995 and 1999.
The alliance of Sarkisian and Demirchian was one between the Soviet-era ruler and the post-Soviet strongman of Armenia. Demirchian was the First Secretary of the Armenian Communist Party Central Committee from 1974 to 1988. During the current phase of insecurity and economic distress, the collective memory associated Demirchian with the tranquillity and relative prosperity experienced by the republic during the late Soviet period. Demirchian became, by all accounts, the country’s most charismatic politician, topping popularity ratings and drawing well-nigh enraptured crowds. He was officially credited with having garnered 40 percent of the vote in the 1998 presidential election, to Kocharian’s 60 percent. Most observers, however, considered the official score to have been rigged in Kocharian’s favor by the “force ministries” and their political apparatus. Although he considered himself cheated of victory, Demirchian tacitly accepted that outcome, bid his time and ultimately went for a deal with the party of power–Sarkisian’s Republicans (see the Monitor, May 28, June 4, 9, 14, 17).
That combination was known to have been blessed by Yevgeny Primakov during his term as prime minister of Russia, in an effort to create a durable internal base–both political and military–to Armenia’s alliance with Moscow. Kocharian’s current, direct negotiations with Azerbaijani President Haidar Aliev, under United States auspices, offer Armenia a chance to extricate itself from that counterproductive and backward-looking alliance. That consideration, however, was certainly not on the mind of the terrorist group.
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