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Armenia: Conflicting Motives Led To Shootings

  • Liz Fuller

The bloodbath Wednesday (Oct. 27) in the Armenian parliament building, in which Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkissian and parliamentary speaker Karen Demirchian were killed along with five other deputies and one government minister, raises many disturbing questions. RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller looks at the conflicting evidence for the motives of the gunmen.

Prague, 29 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The five gunmen, who were arrested Thursday after releasing their surviving hostages, have offered several diverging explanations of their motives and intentions.

During the shooting spree, they told parliament deputies that they were staging a coup to remove national leaders who "had sucked the blood of the people for too long," affirming that "seven or eight people must die." But the leader of the gunmen, former journalist Nairi Hoonanian, later said that he shot Sarkissian because the prime minister had for five years prevented the holding of free elections. And in a statement broadcast on Armenian state television shortly before their surrender, the group said they had acted in protest against the policies of successive governments that had plunged the nation into poverty.

They denied intending to kill anyone, even Sarkissian, saying that they only began shooting in self-defense after security forces opened fire. Television footage, however, clearly shows the gunmen deliberately targeting Sarkissian, Demirchian, and the two deputy parliament speakers.

Those contradictions raise the question whether the attackers were entirely rational. Galust Sahakian, one of the parliament deputies held hostage in the parliament building overnight, described them as "schizophrenics." And the leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun party, Vahan Hovannisian, characterized them as "sick people who wanted a place in history."

In an interview with the independent Armenian TV station A1-Plus, Hoonanian gave the impression of being totally calm and rational. But his identification of Vazgen Sarkissian as the single individual most responsible for Armenia's current economic problems is puzzling -- and erroneous. Until his appointment as premier five months ago, Sarkissian concentrated on defense affairs, serving as defense minister from mid-1995. In that capacity, he had the reputation of being a "loose cannon" and of enjoying high-level patronage in Moscow. In recent months, however, Sarkissian appeared to share other Armenian leaders' determination to balance the country's traditional orientation towards Moscow with cordial relations with the West.

As for the gunmen's objectives and possible political affiliation, Armenian officials say the attackers appear to be acting alone. A spokesman for the president called the gunmen "a handful of terrorists or individual people who don't have any affiliations with any political party or organizations, or at least don't claim any." Opposition party leader Vazgen Manukian added that he does not believe the killings were connected with the recent talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Some international politicians and observers, however, expressed concern that the killings were deliberately intended to destabilize the political situation inside Armenia. And some thought an additional, or alternative, motive may have been to thwart the signing of a formal commitment by the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents to pursue a Karabakh peace agreement. Another motive could be to block the long-anticipated agreement between Azerbaijan and Turkey to build an oil export pipeline from Baku on the Caspian Sea to Ceyhan on Turkey's Black Sea coast. Azerbaijani Prime Minister Artur Rasizade said last week that the pipeline could be routed via Armenia if a Karabakh peace deal is cemented quickly.

Leaders of all parties in Armenia met with President Kocharian yesterday and pledged their support for him. But that pledge may be put to the test when deputies are called upon to endorse Kocharian's choice of a new prime minister. One possible candidate who could be expected to continue the current drive for Western investment backed by a crackdown on corruption is Armen Sarkisian, who served briefly as premier in 1996 and 1997 before stepping down on health grounds.

An alternative -- and one with greater experience in foreign policy -- would be the National Democratic Union's Manukian, who served as prime minister in 1991 and 1992.

By contrast, the choice of a "strongman" such as National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian could herald a retreat from those policies. And Sarkisian would almost certainly adopt an extremely tough line on Karabakh. Serzh Sarkisian's position appears to be increasingly shaky, however, in the light of the Armenian Defense Ministry's demand for his resignation, together with those of the interior minister and prosecutor-general. The Defense Ministry pins the blame for the shootings on the failure of the Interior and National Security ministries to prevent the gunmen from entering the parliament building. They reportedly did so through the entry reserved for journalists, producing the required press credentials, and carrying assault rifles.

Nor is it clear whether the majority Miasnutiun (Unity) parliament faction will survive the murder of the chairmen of its two component parties. Both Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkissian's Republican Party and parliamentary speaker Karen Demirchian's People's Party were created to serve primarily as a power base for their respective leaders. They parties have diverging political ideologies. If Miasnutiun splits, People's Party deputies may choose to align with the Communists, who are currently the second-largest faction within parliament, while the Republicans are likely to join forces with the small Dashnaktsutiun parliament faction.

Regardless of whether the gunmen were acting alone or to order, the killings have created an atmosphere of uncertainty that many factions -- both inside Armenia and beyond its borders -- may be tempted to try to exploit for their own ends. The opposition in Azerbaijan is likely to use that uncertainty as a further argument against the signing of a Karabakh peace agreement. The Azerbaijani leadership has not yet expressed regret or condolences for the killings.