The October 27 assassination of top Armenian leaders by a terrorist group (see the Monitor, October 28) was hardly a bolt out of the blue in that country. On the contrary, it caps a series of high-profile terrorist murders which were linked to the shadow economy and/or political intrigues. Senior officials assassinated in the last few years include: State Security Committee chief, Major-General Marius Yuzbashian; Railroads Director-General Hambartsum Kandilian; Chamber of Industry and Trade President Ashot Sarkisian; Yerevan Mayor Hambartsum Galstian; Prosecutor-General Henrik Khachatrian; Deputy Defense Minister, Colonel Vahram Khorkhoruni; and–last February–Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, Major-General Artsrun Markarian. This list is certainly not exhaustive.
Those and other assassinations remain unresolved to date, not the least because the rival groups responsible for the killings are enmeshed with the military, security and law enforcement apparatus, influence the judiciary, and share–beyond and despite their rivalries–an overriding interest in not spilling the beans on each other and in perpetuating their turf- and spoils-sharing arrangements. Those arrangements can at times become unstable, as the periodic assassinations suggest, but the system has on the whole proven self-regulating, as its continuity seems to indicate. On the other hand, the murder last week of Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, Parliament Chairman Karen Demirchian and other senior officials was almost certainly the work of self-styled social rebels using terror as a political instrument.
While the country and the diaspora have been shocked and outraged by that carnage, they had earlier often tended to accept terrorism as long as it targeted the perceived enemies of the nation. On September 28 of this year, Yerevan news agencies reported on a “celebration”–held at the Chamber Music House–to honor the convicted “fighters” responsible for the 1981 armed attack on the Turkish consulate in Paris and a subsequent bomb explosion at Orly airport. On October 2, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ayatollah Khomeini–under whose leadership Iran became a sponsor of international terrorism–was celebrated at the Armenian Academy of Sciences, with the participation of “dozens of scholars and academics” and to a written tribute from–tragically–Demirchian (Armenpress, Noyan-Tapan, September 27-28). Some Armenian nationalist circles propagandize in the country’s Kurdish villages in favor of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), also busing villagers to Yerevan for pro-PKK demonstrations. Children of Armenia’s Kurdish minority have been misused by marshaling them to parade with portraits of the terrorist leader Abdullah Ocalan and chant slogans in his support (see the Monitor, March 15). Political parties, opinion-makers and state leaders looked on passively.
United States media reported last month that Murad Topalian of Cleveland, Ohio, chairman of the Washington-based political action group Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), has been arrested and indicted on charges of involvement in terrorist actions, following a lengthy investigation by U.S. authorities. Topalian and ANCA have denied the charges and rightly invoked the presumption of innocence. Aside from the matter of Topalian’s personal responsibility, which only the courts may determine, the indictment cites a series of anti-Turkish terrorist incidents perpetrated in recent years by Armenian-American fringe elements in Massachusetts, Ohio and California (AP, Reuters, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 14-17; Armenian National Committee of America press release, October 19).
While marginal in Armenian society, and undoubtedly distasteful to the silent majority, the practice of politically-rationalized violence stems from historic roots. A subculture of terrorism developed among Armenians in the Russian and Ottoman Empires during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a combination of three external models: the Balkan armed insurrections against Ottoman rule, West European socialism–of both the anarchist and the Marxist varieties–and Russian revolutionary terrorism; in time, the latter inspiration prevailed in the Armenian secret armed groups. Those groups played a major role in the tragic cycle of atrocity, counter-atrocity and “revenge” which pitted Armenians against Turks during many decades. Two additional factors came later: first, contamination with Middle Eastern skullduggery from Syria and Lebanon, where the anti-Turkish terrorist Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) originated; and second, the influence of the USSR’s KGB, which exploited such groups as the ASALA and others in the context of Soviet sponsorship of international terrorism.
Last week’s carnage in Yerevan has prompted many thoughtful citizens, as well as foreign observers, to reflect on the causes behind the absence of democracy in post-Soviet Armenia. The legacy of the old terrorist subculture–a marginal phenomenon, but one which poisons the entire body politic, ultimately victimizing all citizens–needs to be identified as a major obstacle to the country’s democratic development.
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