President Robert Kocharian was due to hold an emergency meeting of top government officials today to discuss the death of Markarian and the important ramifications it has on the May parliamentary elections.
In a brief statement, the Armenian government cited "heart paralysis" as the cause of Markarian's death, while a senior medic spoke of "acute heart failure."
History Of Heart Problems
According to Artem Petrosian, the head of Yerevan's municipal ambulance service, the 55-year-old chairman of the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) was unconscious and his heart had stopped beating when ambulance crews arrived at his apartment in the early afternoon.
"They immediately registered a heart stoppage and clinical death," Petrosian told RFE/RL. Markarian was immediately given resuscitation treatment but did not respond, the official said. He said pathologists will determine the exact cause of death.
Markarian had a history of serious heart problems and had two heart operations -- first in Armenia in 1999 and later in France. He regularly visited French and Russian clinics for medical examinations.
"For us, for the country, the party and his friends, this is a huge loss," Tigran Torosian, the parliament speaker and a senior member of the HHK, told A1Plus.am. Torosian credited Markarian with the HHK's success and "achievements" registered by Armenia in recent years.
Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, the no. 2 figure in the official HHK hierarchy, was in Moscow on his way to China for an official visit when he heard of Markarian's death. He reportedly cancelled the trip and is due back in Yerevan.
Emergency Government Meeting
In the meantime, Kocharian promptly expressed "deep sorrow" and offered his condolences to Markarian's family. He also formed a special commission headed by Torosian and tasked with organizing Markarian's state funeral. "The state commission today held its first meeting," Kocharian's office said in a press release.
In a separate short statement, the presidential press service said Kocharian has called an "emergency meeting of the country's high-ranking leadership." No further details were reported.
The HHK's governing board is expected to meet separately later in the day. According to Torosian, the meeting will take place after Sarkisian's return to Yerevan. Dozens of senior Republican Party members, some of them in tears, were waiting for Sarkisian, the powerful defense chief, at the party headquarters in the city center in the evening.
A computer engineer by training, Markarian began his political activities in the early 1970s when he joined a clandestine group campaigning for Armenia's secession from the Soviet Union and spent two years in Soviet labor camps as a political prisoner. He was among several members of that group who founded the HHK in 1989.
Markarian was elected chairman of the AMK in 1993. In 1996, he also joined the influential Yerkrapah union of veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, the organization whose parliament deputies triggered the resignation of President Levon Ter-Petrossian in February 1998 by withdrawing their support for him.
Markarian was elected a parliament deputy in 1995, and again in 1999. Kocharian named him prime minister in May 2000. In that post, he has presided over a period of double-digit economic growth but has consistently adopted a tough line on such key issues as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Armenian-Turkish relations.
He was appointed prime minister after effectively switching sides in a bitter power struggle that was sparked by the October 1999 attack on the Armenian parliament that killed eight politicians, including Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian. It ended in victory for Kocharian and Sarkisian.
He held on to the post in the shadow of Armenia's two most-powerful men, rarely defying them on major policy issues and essentially putting the HHK at their disposal.
Markarian defended his job as premier in an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service in December.
"I do not wish to say that there are no negative aspects in Armenia and that [those negative aspects] were eradicated during my premiership," he said. "During my tenure we openly spoke about all the problems and shortcomings, starting with poverty and the equal distribution of wealth. We spoke openly about these things and we spoke more openly about these things than the opposition did. We also battled corruption and we admitted there was much corruption and we needed to fight against it. We did not only talk about these problems during meetings and parliamentary sessions. We were saying there are problems and we are taking steps against them."
Markarian was widely expected to resign as prime minister after the May 12 parliamentary elections. Local observers have suggested that Sarkisian, increasingly seen as the HHK's real top leader, is keen to take up the post and use it as a launch pad for the Armenian presidency. The question now is whether Sarkisian is willing to become premier before the vote. It is also unclear whether he is Kocharian's preferred candidate for the job.
Speaking to journalists in January, Markarian -- who became independent Armenia's longest-serving prime minister -- effectively admitted that he will no longer head the government after elections. When asked whether he is "psychologically" prepared to lose the job, he said: "I think romantically but am a pragmatist."
But he told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that criticism of his government is not necessarily a bad thing.
His Death Complicates Elections
"In every country there should be some discontent, beginning in the United States and on through Europe," he said. "Where can you say there is no discontent? A country that has no discontent means it is totalitarian."
Markarian's sudden death is likely to exacerbate the rivalry in the runup to the May 12 parliamentary elections between Markarian's HHK, which has a majority in the outgoing legislature, and the rival would-be "party of power," Prosperous Armenia, which is headed by a wealthy oligarch with close ties to Kocharian.
Meanwhile, official Yerevan began receiving the first messages of condolences from foreign leaders. Citing Kremlin officials, the Regnum news agency reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin conveyed his sympathy to Markarian's relatives, Armenia's leadership, and Kocharian in particular.
The U.S. charge d'affaires in Yerevan, Anthony Godfrey, issued a statement on the occasion, describing Markarian as a "valuable partner of the United States." "We honor Prime Minister Markarian's lifelong contributions to Armenian life, from his work with the dissident National Unity Party during the 1960s and 1970s, through independent Armenia's emergence from Soviet rule, and as the head of government since 2000," Godfrey said.
Markarian is survived by a wife, two daughters, and a son.
(RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller and RFE/RL's Armenian Service contributed to this article.)