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Armenia: After Tragedy, Armenia Copes With Consequences

By Mark Baker and Emil Danielyan

The killing in the Armenian parliament building is over, but the nation is only now coming to grips with the consequences. RFE/RL's Emil Danielyan and Mark Baker examine the tragedy and take a look at its implications for the country's leadership.

Yerevan/Prague; 28 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The sound of gunmen shouting and then firing resonated in the Armenian Parliament yesterday. Their rampage left the country's prime minister, parliament speaker, and six others dead.

Early today, the gunmen surrendered to authorities, leaving a shocked nation to sort out the consequences of the attack.

The five gunmen were taken into custody by the Ministry of National Security. Their surrender and the release of some 40 hostages followed a night of negotiations with President Robert Kocharian and other officials.

Kocharian and leaders of the country's biggest political parties are meeting today to discuss how to deal with the loss of the country's top officials. Among those shot dead were Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkissian, parliament speaker Karen Demirchian, two deputy speakers, Yuri Bakhshian and Ruben Miroyan, and government minister for operational issues Leonard Petrosian. Two parliamentarians were also killed and several others were hospitalized with serious injuries. One is in critical condition.

In a first reaction, Vahan Hovannisian, the leader of the formerly banned party Dashnaktsutyun, called the tragedy a "terrible, irreplaceable loss." He said all political forces must now rally around the president. He said the assailants were "sick people" who wanted to earn a "place in history."

The leader of the gunmen, Nairi Hoonanian, was a member of Dashnaktsutyun in 1991 and 1992 before being expelled for unspecified wrongdoing.

Officials say it is not clear what motivated Hoonanian or even whether he and the other men were operating on their own.

In a statement broadcast by state television an hour before the surrender, the group said Sarkissian was the sole target of the attack. They said they only wanted to intimidate the other deputies, not kill them.

Our correspondent says it is clear Sarkissian was the intended victim. The gunmen's claim, however, that the other casualties were accidental clearly contradicts television footage showing gunmen targeting Demirchian and other deputies.

Hoonanian told Armenian television (A1-Plus) the gunmen's actions were prompted by their wish to prevent what he called the death of the nation and to restore its rights. Hoonanian said "The reason for our actions is the miserable situation of our people. The people are starving. In Armenia, there is no positive movement or evolution. For five or six years, all kinds of progress had stopped and every evolution in Armenia was condemned."

He told television the killings were a "wake-up call" for people to take charge of their destiny. He said it is not always the case that people have the opportunity to establish an independent state. He said Armenia has had two chances this century and has failed.

Justice Minister David Harutunian, who was in the assembly during the assault, dismissed speculation the attack was well organized. He said the gunmen simply lost control of their emotions:

"My first impression was that this was a well-thought-out but not well-founded act based on emotions. [It was] a little bit unexpected too. What I mean is, when someone takes one drastic step, the psychological process leads him to more drastic steps. I think this is that phenomenon. At the beginning, the situation was very tense because [the gunmen] were also in shock. But later on, there were people in the assembly hall who began interacting and talking with them and the tension gradually died down."

The attack coincided with a visit to Armenia by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. Talbott earlier in the day held talks with Sarkissian and Kocharian on the contentious issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly ethnic Armenian enclave located within the territory of arch-rival Azerbaijan.

Talbott had been pressing a U.S. policy that the two countries agree to a settlement on the enclave by next month's summit in Istanbul of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Coming so soon after Talbott's visit, the attack naturally prompted speculation the gunmen wanted to scuttle progress on a peace accord that might require Armenia to make unpopular concessions.

But Vazgen Manukian, chairman of the opposition National Democratic Union, dismissed speculation the attack had anything to do with Nagorno-Karabakh. Speaking to reporters today, Manukian said the assassins most probably acted on their own.

Manukian's claim was backed up by Hoonanian himself, who told Reuters his actions were not directly linked with efforts to resolve the dispute. The agency quotes him as saying, "This is not an issue of Karabakh, although Karabakh is a part of it [in the context of] the general situation in our country."

Regardless of whether the gunmen acted alone or on the behalf of someone or some organization, many Armenians are asking how it was that the gunmen, armed with Kalashnikov rifles, were able to gain access to the parliament chamber. It is not clear where Sarkissian's and Demirchian's bodyguards were at the time of the shooting.

Harutunian refused to comment on whether criminal proceedings will be initiated against the parliament's security service for failing to stop the gunmen.

The Defense Ministry today expressed grave concern over the armed attack and demanded the resignations of top civilian security officials. The ministry also voiced support for Kocharian.

The fatal shots may also have mortally wounded the country's governing Miasnutyun (Unity) bloc, formed by Sarkissian and Demirchian earlier this year. The bloc swept to a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in May, largely because of Demirchian's popularity. Demirchian ruled Soviet Armenia from 1974 and 1988.

Sarkissian rose to prominence during the war against Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. His appointment as prime minister in June meant a major shift of political power in Armenia, with Kocharian ceding much of his influence.

The death of two of the country's most powerful politicians creates a big vacuum in the government and in the larger political landscape. It remains to be seen whether the Miasnutyun bloc will be able to come up with new leadership or will simply fall apart.