Killings leave Armenia shaken; Leaders' deaths change nation's view of itself, raise questions of future

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"He was deeply disappointed, as all of us were, with the Velvet Revolution," Xmalian said.

In September 1996, Armenians gathered in front of parliament to protest fraud in the presidential election, which resulted in the re-election of Levon Ter Petrossian. Sarkisian, then the defense minister, brought out tanks to drive the people away. "We'll never give up power," he was widely quoted as saying. "We don't care how you vote."

It didn't matter whether he actually said those exact words. People believed he did.

"They had led the national movement against communism, and in a few years they brought the army against the people," said Xmalian. "We felt betrayed. That's when they planted the seeds. Now you have the bloody harvest."

Over the years, Armenians have been steadily impoverished. Though the costly war with Azerbaijan over Karabakh ended in a truce five years ago, Armenia was left isolated. Azerbaijan lost the war but claims the land and has sealed its border to Armenia's east. Turkey, sympathetic to fellow Islamic nation Azerbaijan and long antagonistic to Christian Armenia, has sealed off the western border. Georgia offers a tumultuous border to the north, and Iran lies to the south.

Industry has died off. There are hardly any jobs and fewer prospects. People live from the land, with the help of their families and with significant U.S. aid.

During these years, parliament became an economic club more than a political one, Xmalian said, with Sarkisian controlling the economically powerful army and Demirchian representing the old-time factory directors.

"Parliament became a closed club of the nouveau riche who controlled clans and channels," he said. "Policy is just an umbrella for their main activity. They're not all thieves. Some are successful businessmen."

In this poor country, where salaries range from $15 to $30 a month when they are paid, the street next to parliament is lined with lovely oak trees and with the deputies' cars, colorful as the changing fall leaves: Lilac BMWs, navy blue ones, black Mercedes Benzes, golden ones, Jeep Cherokees, a Lincoln Town Car.

"Psychologically, I understand this guy," Xmalian said of Unanian. "They are stealing our opportunities. He was nothing, and he was too proud to be nothing."

Traumatized Armenians found it incomprehensible that gunmen could so easily penetrate parliament. Rumors swept Yerevan that insiders must have helped. One detail, however, was little known. The National Assembly has no metal detectors; many deputies carry guns themselves and are licensed to do so.

Honor obliges legislators to remove their arms before entering the chamber, so those inside were unprotected. One deputy, Armen Armenakian, was in a hallway just outside the chamber and had his gun.

"He saw them coming, and he went for his gun," Margarian said. "He was dead before he got his gun out."

About 40 deputies and government officials spent the next 16 hours as hostages, until President Robert Kocharian negotiated their release by guaranteeing the gunmen's safety and promising them a fair trial. A trial, Unanian said, would give him the opportunity to show the government's guilt.

Five hours into the captivity, the gunmen allowed the deputies to use their mobile phones. "By that time, most of our batteries had run down," said Margarian, who was made to stand in front of the assailants for eight hours to protect them from snipers.

"Of course, the situation is very serious now," Margarian said.

Thousands of Armenians paid their respects to the victims yesterday. After the funerals today, a prime minister will be appointed, a speaker elected. Most people think that Kocharian has handled the crisis confidently and well.

"The ground is firm under his feet," Margarian said.

The power failure and darkness had left his telephone negotiations with the president uninterrupted. An aide, his way lighted by a cigarette lighter, found candles and set them on the desk. An improbably large lieutenant, with a gun on one hip and a mobile phone on the other, poured mineral water and lit one cigarette after another for his boss.

The power returned. The phone call ended.

Margarian said he and Kocharian had agreed on a prime minister.

Other Cabinet posts were under negotiation, he said. No policy will change. Armenia will pursue peace with Azerbaijan.

Armenia will go on, agreed Mirzakhanian, but it will prosper only if its leaders take last week's carnage as a lesson, a terrible, bloody lesson.

"There's nothing impossible in politics," he said, "and there will be politicians to replace those who have died. But the president and politicians have to draw a clear-cut lesson from this. They must change conditions so that no one will ever consider such actions again."

It was early Saturday now. The power was on. Margarian and other party members remained in their smoke-filled office, mapping out the future.

Outside, the streets of Yerevan were quiet. And still very dark.

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