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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 nave 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.


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Dr. Ara Sanjian is director of the department for Armenian Studies at
Haigazian University in Beirut.

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