Killings leave Armenia shaken

Leaders' deaths change nation's view of itself, raise questions of future

October 31, 1999|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

YEREVAN, Armenia -- The power had failed, as it frequently does here. The chairman of Armenia's most powerful political party sat in the midnight darkness, speaking urgently into the telephone, bargaining over Armenia's future with the nation's president on the other end of the line.

The fate of small but ambitious Armenia -- a land the size of Maryland settled on the southern flanks of the Caucasus Mountains -- took a violent turn last week when five Kalashnikov-wielding men burst into parliament and killed eight people, including the country's highest government and legislative leaders.

A few seconds of automatic rifle fire destroyed cherished national assumptions. Throughout all the disappointment and disillusionment that Armenians endured over the last decade as they struggled to create a democratic state out of the ruins of the Soviet dictatorship, one conviction comforted them: They saw themselves as a redoubt for reason and civility in the tempestuous southern mountains.

"Now we've got a precedent," said Ruben Mirzakhanian, chairman of the Democratic Liberal Party of Armenia. "Now we're the kind of country where someone can walk into the parliamentary chamber and spray it with bullets."

The new circumstances have harmed every Armenian, said Tigran Xmalian, an independent filmmaker.

"We felt safe," he said. "Now it's over." Wednesday afternoon, as the prime minister and other members of the government submitted to a weekly cross-examination by parliament -- the Armenian National Assembly -- a former journalist named Nairi Unanian headed toward them with an automatic rifle hidden under his trench coat.

He was accompanied by two relatives and two friends, all armed. And if he didn't want to seize power himself, he at least wanted to take it away from those who held it.

Andranik N. Margarian, chairman of the Republican Party of Armenia and the man who would be sitting in a dark office two days later, making telephone deals for the new political order with the president, was close to the front of the chamber, near Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian. It was 5: 15 p.m.

"All of a sudden we heard volleys of gunfire," Margarian said. "They came in shooting and shouting at us to lie on the floor. I saw very clearly how they shot the prime minister. Then, as he lay on the floor, they shot him in the head to finish him off."

Just before entering parliament, the prime minister had been to the airport to see off Strobe Talbott, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, who had visited Yerevan to discuss the progress of peace talks with Azerbaijan.

The United States, interested in a secure oil supply from the region, cares deeply about stability here -- so much so that Talbott returned unexpectedly Friday so the president could assure him Armenian policy remained unchanged. "I trust the search for peace in the region will continue," Talbott said.

Unanian, 34, assaulted parliament because he wanted to execute Sarkisian, Margarian said, and incite a public uprising. Unanian apparently blamed Sarkisian for Armenia's corruption and failure to realize the early, golden dreams of prosperity and opportunity, for presiding over a system that some Armenians said was beginning to acquire the characteristics of the old, power-hungry, oppressive Soviet one that they had all fought against.

"Enough of drinking our blood," Unanian shouted as he fired.

The gunmen said the shooting of the other victims was an accident.

Karen Demirchian, the 67-year-old speaker of parliament and co-leader with Sarkisian of a powerful legislative alliance called Unity, was shot to death. So were the deputy speaker and five other officials.

Until May, when the president appointed him prime minister, Sarkisian, 40, had been defense minister. He was many other things: political kingmaker, war hero, creator of the army, unpredictable, macho. He was respected, he was feared, he personified the Republican Party, but most of all, he was powerful.

In Soviet days, Karen Demirchian was first secretary of the Communist Party and ruled Armenia absolutely for 14 years. The older generation loved him. He was charming and reassuring, enveloping them in a haze of nostalgia, recalling the days when bread was cheap and salaries were regular.

The death of two such strong leaders with six other high-level officials was almost too much for the country to absorb.

"I think the country is in disbelief," said Gassia Apkarian, an Armenian-American who works as a presidential adviser. "People have a hard time explaining it. And they're embarrassed in front of the world."

In a country of about 3.5 million people, where practically everyone is related, Unanian was known. In the early '90s, he created the Armenian Boy Scouts. Before that, he had been a fighter, trying to reclaim the ancient territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Soviet rulers had awarded to Azerbaijan. When Armenia declared its independence in 1991, Unanian expected a strong republic to emerge.

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