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MURDER IN PARLIAMENT: WHO? WHY? AND WHAT NEXT? By Ara Sanjian Armenia is not a stranger to various kinds of political crises and even political assassinations since she regained her independence over eight years ago. By all standards, however, what happened in the Armenian Parliament building last Wednesday afternoon was undoubtedly both extraordinary and shocking. Eight politicians lost their lives during the terrorist attack, including two of the country's most famous and most powerful. Others are still in hospital in serious condition. This is certainly not the first time in world history when the legislature of any one country has been targeted by terrorists, resulting in mass bloodshed. Armenians all over the world, however, had previously naively assumed - perhaps like most other nations on Earth - that such destructive madness could never happen in their own backyard. Always conscious of their image in the outside world, this was one kind of publicity on CNN and other world media outlets that Armenians did not want to get. THE LEADER OF THE GUNMEN What made the event really bizarre was the fact that the leader of the assassins was not a previously unknown and shadowy figure like Lee Harvey Oswald or John Hinckley. Five men participated in the assault on the parliament, but from the first moment publicity has (perhaps rightly) focused solely on the apparent leader of the group, 34-year old Nairi Hounanian. He did not have to introduce himself to the journalists, who were covering the parliamentary session; he was their colleague. Thousands of Armenians in Yerevan and indeed across the world, who first heard of his deed through their radio and television sets, also recognised him at once. They had known him as a student, as one of the early activists of the Karabagh movement in Armenia in the late 1980s, as a participant in the scouting-camps organised by the Homenetmen association, etc. Wherever he went, Nairi left his mark. Most, who have had the chance to know him well enough, were probably not surprised that he had resorted to such an extreme form of action. Yet, Nairi Hounanian was no born killer. One of his former university classmates wrote soon after the tragic event that he could have easily become equally famous as a poet. This author also knew him as a college student. We were contemporaries at Yerevan State University during the second half of the 1980s. While we never became close friends, we had brief opportunities to discuss politics within the context of the Karabagh movement. He was one of the most active organisers of the student sit-in at the Opera (now Freedom) Square in Yerevan in early June 1988. The latter forced the Communist leadership in Armenia to permit the Supreme Soviet of the Armenian SSR to pass a resolution on June 15 expressing the republic's readiness to unite with the Mountainous Karabagh autonomous region in neighbouring Azerbaijan. Nairi was later instrumental in organising the Alliance of Armenian Students (Hai Usanoghakan Dashink) and publishing three issues of a samizdat titled "Dashink". The Soviet authorities briefly detained him during this period. Nairi did not hide then his deep sympathy with the Dashnak party. He once told this author that he had started to admire the Dashnaks by reading brief quotations from their publications in works written by Soviet ideologues to refute Dashnak ideology and practices - the closest that any young man could get to first-hand Dashnak writings in the Soviet era. It is understandable that the Dashnak party immediately tried to distance itself from Nairi and his terrorist act, particularly because some Western media outlets had misled their public by reporting inaccurately that Nairi was still a member of that party. The adjectives used by Dashnak party leaders and other Armenian politicians to describe Nairi in the wake of the terrorist act all necessarily carried negative connotations. Until 1990, however, when this author last met him, Nairi was certainly not a schizophrenic. With hindsight, his great activism, determination and eventual success in propagating Dashnak values within the Yerevan University campus and organising a local branch of the Dashnak-affiliated Homenetmen athletic and scouting organisation should not be ignored. This author remains unaware of the reasons that ultimately led Nairi and the Dashnak party to part ways in Armenia. According to a short biography of the gang-leader, published in the official media as the standoff in parliament was still going on, this happened in the early 1990s. In the meantime, Nairi had briefly worked for Armenian State television, for the news program "Haylour" which was more sympathetic towards the opponents of President Levon Ter-Petrosian and was later closed down by the government. Nairi then reportedly spent a few years in the Ukraine. According to one report, his mother was still there on the day of the shooting. Nairi had returned to Armenia in recent years and had appeared again on television on a few occasions as a freelance reporter. THE MOTIVE The government agencies in Armenia, including the state television that now also broadcasts via satellite to Europe and the Middle East, were very slow in reporting the unfolding events on Wednesday afternoon. Even now, a few days after the surrender of the gunmen and the beginning of their interrogation, a full picture of the actual sequence of events has not emerged. It is evident that old, Soviet habits are dying hard in Armenia. Initial reports said that Nairi Hounanian and fellow gunmen had claimed that they were launching a coup. They were going to punish corrupt politicians (who `had drunk the blood of the people') and save the country from them. Armenia, they argued, had seen no really free elections since gaining independence, and there seemed to be no other avenue for `real' change except bloodshed. Like nineteenth century anarchists and populists, they hoped that the `nation' would thus be shaken up through their `sacrifice,' regain its senses and ultimately support their aims and action. Later on, when Nairi got the opportunity to give - through a mobile phone - interviews to private television stations in Armenia and the Russian Federation, he stated that he had specifically targeted the powerful Prime Minister, Vazgen Sargsyan. He expressed sorrow for the other deaths, which would not have happened, he claimed, had he and his comrades not come under return fire from bodyguards present in the chamber. Finally, when - as part of the deal to end the crisis peacefully - the gunmen were given the opportunity to have their statement read on the state television, they claimed that their `action was not taken with the aim of murdering deputies. We intended to frighten them and urged them to get down. `Only when bodyguards opened fire on us from two sides were we forced to reply, as a result of which innocent people died. If the bodyguards hadn't fired, we would also have restricted our firing to the air, which would have prevented deaths.' There was no mention that a different fate had awaited the Prime Minister from the start. Finally, if the written statement presents the correct version of events, then it clearly contradicts earlier reports by journalists who witnessed events in the chamber. The latter had recounted that the first round of indiscriminate gunfire had only wounded the Premier, and that Hounanian had later shot Sargsyan at point blank range after exchanging a couple of sentences with him. Therefore, it remains unclear what exactly the gunmen were trying to achieve. Were they really that naïve that they could overturn the whole post-Soviet system in Armenia on their own by simply entering the parliament building, killing a few ministers and deputies, and kidnapping tens of others? Were they part of a more elaborate coup plot which failed to trigger off because of lack of adequate co-ordination? Or was Nairi simply after Vazgen Sargsyan's skin? If so, were his motives solely personal or was he acting on behalf of a political and/or shadowy business grouping, which wanted to eliminate the Prime Minister? Were any foreign countries - interested in destabilising Armenia - involved in the plot? The government dismissed the possibility of a coup as soon as the claim made by the gunmen was reported to the outside world. Developments since do not give outside observers any reason to doubt the government's position. Analyses by various experts and journalists, therefore, have basically concentrated on the lone gunman theory. The brief biography of the assassin does indeed give credence to such a possibility. In the late 1980s, Nairi Hounanian was a young man with fanatical views. Like most Dashnaks in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Nairi disliked the leaders of the Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) and was very suspicious of the motives of the Levon Ter-Petrosian administration. This author has come across many Dashnaks and their sympathisers in Armenia, who continue to believe that the first president of Armenia was intentionally destroying the country's economy and infrastructure in the service of unnamed foreign, unfriendly powers. It seems that Nairi did not abandon such views even after leaving (or being expelled) from the Dashnak party, for such opinions were also widely held outside the narrow Dashnak circles in Armenia. This author remembers one influential university professor denying - a few months after Ter-Petrosian's resignation in February 1998 - any link between a political settlement in Karabagh and an upturn in Armenia's economy. He argued that the economy was in a bad shape only because the country's political and financial elite was purposefully making sure that the economy would never stand on its feet. Vazgen Sargsyan, one of Ter-Petrosian's oldest comrades, was one of the very few politicians in the country, who had never been in opposition since independence in 1991. Although he was instrumental in precipitating Ter-Petrosian's resignation over disagreements on how to solve the Karabagh problem, he later did not encourage, to say the least, any attempt to try the symbols of old regime over alleged corruption and other illegal practises. Nairi Hounanian was both extremely self-confident and ambitious. Few people who knew him, wrote one journalist, were surprised that he embarked on such a drastic and bloody step. This author shares this assessment. In fact, we now know that Nairi had not hidden, on more than one occasion, his intentions from fellow journalists, but the latter had stopped taking him seriously. Unlike many of his old friends from university days, Nairi subsequently failed to get any important office in government or among the ranks of the recognised, `loyal' opposition in the country. In poverty-stricken Armenia, the importance of having a secure government job to manage to have a `decent' standard of living, is clear to almost everyone. Nairi may have interpreted his `failure' as an indication that righteous people had no place in the post-Soviet system in Armenia and wanted to shake the country's political edifice to its roots. Nairi's message read to the public on state television repeated many themes that are widely endorsed by common people in Yerevan. `In the past few years,' read the statement, `our wonderful country has fallen to pieces and has turned into a motherland from which everyone dreams only of leaving'; `we can barely make ends meet'; `our children today do not even have shoes or textbooks to go to school with'; `our economy has collapsed, social tensions have reached an unthinkable height'; `our state is in danger'. Visitors to Armenia can assert that people in Yerevan think that there are more subjective than objective reasons behind this sharp decline in living standards. One Diasporan journalist who went to Armenia during the harshest winter Armenia witnessed in the early 1990s, came back astonished that she could not find even one person, who would stand before the camera of a western televison company she was representing and blame the Azerbaijanis for the blockade and the ensuing hardship. Blaming the home government for incompetence was (and is) more widespread. If this method or reasoning is correct, then for Nairi almost everyone in the chamber was a legitimate target; the seemingly all-powerful and invincible Sargsyan, even more so. Few in Yerevan will dare to openly welcome Hounanian's act. Many, however, are already whispering their hope that politicians will from now on pay more attention to the ethical side of their actions and will take into consideration the possibility that they too may be held accountable in future for their allegedly corrupt dealings. THE CHIEF VICTIM International media outlets have concentrated chiefly on the assassination of Armenia's Prime Minister, 40-year old Vazgen Sargsyan. This is probably a correct assessment, although the domestic media in Armenia has certainly not ignored the other victims of the terrorist assault: former Communist Party leader and Speaker of Parliament Karen Demirchian; his two deputies, Yuri Bakhshyan and Ruben Miroyan; Leonard Petrosian, a former Prime Minister of Mountainous Karabagh and later a minister in Armenia's government, as well as a staunch ally of President Robert Kocharian; and three deputies, all from the ruling Miasnutyun (Unity) bloc. Sargsyan's death will indeed have the biggest impact on the future of Armenia's political landscape. History will rightly remember Vazgen Sargsyan as the founder of the modern Armenian armed forces and one of the chief architects behind the victories in recent years on the Karabagh front. Comparisons made in recent days with Vardan Mamikonian and Andranik Ozanian are certainly not exaggerations in the technical sense. He seems to have been a personality who never ran away from shouldering the toughest of responsibilities and seemed to end always on the winning side. But there was another side to Sargsyan, which can now be safely laid to rest, but could not be ignored as long as he was alive and well. He was extremely ambitious and did not always shun non-democratic methods to attain his political and personal goals. Like most important politicians in Armenia, he was also reputed to have been deeply involved in `black market' business dealings. He reportedly led one of the most influential `mafia' clans in the country and had in the process made many enemies. Few dared to challenge him openly, however. The lack of open criticism against him was motivated not only by the genuinely deep respect towards his achievements as Defense Minister but also by fear of his all-reaching hand. Many expected him to be Armenia's next president. During this author's most recent visit to Yerevan last September, some in the chattering classes were predicting that he would probably not wait until the end of Kocharian's term in 2003 to lay open claim to the country's highest office. When I challenged a young civil servant, who shared this point of view, that Sargsyan was probably still unsure that he could get the majority of the popular vote in any democratic presidential election in the near future, his answer was very revealing. `People in Armenia,' he said cynically, `have become convinced by now that elections do not determine anything!' Nairi probably shared the same point of view, but made different conclusions. He probably thought that by eliminating Sargsyan he would `save' Armenia from the seemingly unending chain of `mafia rule.' It is even possible that he had his own reasons to bear a personal grudge against the Prime Minister and seek bloody revenge, but only people who have known him in the last few days can assert or refute such a possibility. `DARK FORCES' But did Nairi have any accomplices besides his brother, uncle and the two other gunmen, who are now awaiting trial? Most Armenians that this author has met since last Wednesday are not convinced that such a dramatic assault could have been the work of a small number of relatively insignificant people. The stakes appear to be much higher. To start with, the Karabagh peace process may be derailed, at least in the short term, much needed foreign investment may slow down again, and Armenia may experience a period of political instability. `How did the assassins manage to take their kalashnikovs into the building?' seems to be the most widely asked question to `prove' that the assassins should have enjoyed at least some `high-level' backing. Others want to know what he was doing when living abroad for a considerable period. Assertions that security precautions in Armenia have traditionally been relatively lax will convince very few people at this stage. Nairi had a journalistic pass and could easily enter the building and take in the weapons one by one under his overcoat. This author, studying in Armenia in the late 1980s from then war-torn Lebanon, was surprised on more than occasion when he found himself physically very close to Soviet Armenia's Communist Party leader or Prime Minister during public events. Such `close encounters' were almost impossible in Lebanon. Security was tightened in recent years, but it was still possible for this author to enter the parliament building with a deputy in September 1998 without showing his temporary pass to the policeman guarding the main entrance. That same policeman was understandably annoyed when he was shown the pass only when this author was leaving the parliament compound! It has just been announced that an offer by the United States embassy to provide metal detectors for the parliament had been turned down previously. Armenia's legislators did not wish to appear distanced from their constituents and this after two of the previous speakers of Armenia's parliament had been brutally beaten by angry mobs on two different occasions since 1988. It will be one of Nairi's sad legacies that ordinary Armenians will find it more difficult to approach their ministers and deputies in future. The relative plausibility of the lone assassin theory should not, however, preclude a full investigation of all other possible more complex motives and conspiracy theories. Most previous political murders in Armenia, however, remain unsolved. Whenever any official explanation was given in the past, the public was extremely reluctant to believe it at face value. This is certainly another aspect of the deep cynicism prevalent in post-Soviet Armenia towards politicians and politics in general. With the prosecutor's office and the judiciary still lacking the required independence from political considerations in their actions, the ramifications of this murder will also probably remain a mystery for most Armenians for a long time. POSSIBLE BENEFICIARIES Irrespective of the motives of the assassins and/or the identity of their alleged internal or external backers, the disappearance of both Vazgen Sargsyan and his ally, Karen Demirchian, will lead to drastic changes in Armenia's day-to-day politics. It seems that the immediate transition will be relatively smooth. The political elite in the country appears to be shocked, and the opposition parties will allow the Miasnutyun bloc to replace the assassinated politicians with other comrades in the now vacant leadership positions in parliament. A similar closing in of ranks in Israel in the wake of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin did not prevent, however, the defeat of Shimon Peres in the next parliamentary elections, followed by four years of largely fruitless government by Binyamin Netanyahu. In Armenia, too, the deep sympathy that people now feel toward the assassinated leaders will not necessarily ensure the survival of the Miasnutyun bloc in the medium- or longer-term. The two parties in that bloc, the Republicans and the Populists, were heavily dependent on their respective charismatic leaders, who have now both left the scene. Like the Armenian Pan-National Movement before them, they may just crumble without a recognisable leader active in day-to-day political life. One person who might have succeeded Sargsyan as the de facto leader of the Republican faction, Minister of the Interior Suren Abrahamyan, now finds himself in a very vulnerable position. Other political factions will probably compete with one another in the long run to woo many of the Miasnutyun deputies to strengthen their positions both within the chamber and outside. An early general election should not be ruled out within a few months. Outside the party structures, President Kocharian may also ultimately benefit from the disappearance of both Sargsyan and Demirchian, who had effectively marginalised him in the last few months. Kocharian's successful handling of the hostage situation and his symbolising of constitutional continuity in the country will necessarily improve his ratings in the near future, but he should show further political and diplomatic skills to succeed in the long run. Serge Sargsyan, the Minister of National Security and a former Minister of Defence, may have also attempted to fill the void created after the assassination of the Prime Minister. Vazgen Sargsyan had succeeded where Ter-Petrosian had earlier failed by dividing the ministries of the Interior and National Security, weakening Serge Sargsyan in the process. But the latter, too, now finds himself in a vulnerable position, and Vazgen Sargsyan's followers in the Defence Ministry may block his upward path in future. They have already held Serge Sargsyan partly responsible for the tragedy. Samvel Babayan, the former strongman of Karabagh, may in turn try to improve his recently weakened position. Sargsyan's support for Karabagh President Arkadiy Ghoukassian earlier this year was very important in relatively marginalising Babayan's stature in Karabagh and limiting the extent of his business dealings in Armenia proper. Finally, many in Armenia will start to look desperately for another strong home-based politician to prevent the total domination of the country's political landscape by members of the `Karabagh party.' For many, the late Vazgen Sargsyan was Armenia's `last hope' in this regard. It is evident that Nairi Hounanian's indiscriminate shooting last Wednesday has really plunged Armenia into very `interesting times.' Nations, however, grow up and mature only by successfully passing through such inevitable periods. They assert their right to have their secure place under the sun by enduring and overcoming emergency situations. ---------------------------------------------------------------------- Dr. Ara Sanjian is director of the department for Armenian Studies at Haigazian University in Beirut.