The slaying of 8 prominent politicians in Armenia on 27th October including the prime minister, Vazgen Sarkisian, and speaker of the parliament, Karen Demirchian, took the Western media completely by surprise. Experts seemed to be thin on the ground CNN provided a young lady from the Economist Intelligence Unit who squirmed in discomfort when asked about the complexities of Yerevan politics; editorial staff from a leading US newspaper was surprised to learn that ‘Karen’ Demirchian was not a woman.
Yet, while such a drastic scenario was impossible to predict, some glitch in Armenia’s political life could have been predicted. The reason is this: a solution to the ongoing problem of what to do with Nagorno Karabakh seemed to be on the horizon.
Although fighting between the neighbouring republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia ended in 1994, the permanent status of the small Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh situated within Azerbaijan itself remained unresolved. An OSCE-sponsored peace initiative, the Minsk Process, had made little progress with different solutions put on the table at various times the one seeming to favour Baku while yet another benefited Yerevan, and vice versa.
Since 1994 the United States has become more entrenched both economically and politically in the Caucasus region. But investments in the oil-rich Caspian remain insecure as the pipelines needed to get the oil and gas out to the West transit Russia to the north or go through Georgia to the north-west. Both logistics and financing call for a more direct route, ideally through Armenia and on to Turkey. Investors themselves would also be more enthusiastic if regional squabbles, like Karabakh, were to be settled once and for all. It goes without saying that they care little whether Armenia or Azerbaijan are the winners in this particular struggle as long as the problem goes away.
However, it looks very much as though somebody, somewhere does not want the problem of Karabakh to go away, not yet, that is. In February 1998 when it looked as though a previous deal was about to be struck, Armenia’s president, Levon Ter Petrosian, was removed from office by, it was assumed, hardline supporters of Karabakh independence, including the murdered Vazgen Sarkisian and the then-prime minister, Robert Kocharian. Kocharian himself was a former president of Nagorno Karabakh.
Kocharian stood and won the presidency in elections that took place in Armenia in March 1998 but only a after a strange and unsatisfactory campaign. Out of the blue, he was challenged for the post by the country’s last Communist leader, Karen Demirchian, who had resigned in 1988 when the Karabakh protests were at their height. Since then Demirchian had pursued a career as a businessman running the Armelektromash factory in Yerevan, presumably without the faintest intention of returning to the political fray.
But his candidacy was heavily promoted by the West, the US in particular. The ‘plan’ was obvious: to shoe the maleable Demirchian into the presidency so that negotiations on Karabakh’s future could be resumed from where Ter Perosian left off. It was generally assumed that Armenians would likely go for the nostalgia vote: Demirchian a reminder of the old Soviet days of plenty as against the younger Kocharian, a by-word for the present miserable standard of living. One American journalist was told not to bother going to Yerevan for the election as it was "all sown up Demirchian is going to win"
But things did not go according to plan. While many older Armenians may have associated Demirchian with happier times, others saw him as the old Communist boss who, among other things, had presided over the construction of the thousands of shaky high-rise buildings that had collapsed in the terrible earthquake of December 1988. On top of this, Armenians had developed a passionate hatred for Ter Petrosian during his 8 years in power. Kocharian was not only perceived as being younger and more dynamic than Demirchian he was also regarded as a refreshingly honest successor to the former president and his regime.
When it became obvious that Demirchian was not going to win as easily as expected a vast array of American ‘election observers’ descended on Yerevan from where they fanned around the small republic and, allegedly, found evidence of huge electoral fraud perpetrated by the supporters of Robert Kocharian. Despite the fact that over 80% of the official OSCE observer team reported no such irregularities, a cleverly organized beat-up by a number of vociferous, mainly American observers, managed to taint the conduct of the election in the eyes of the world.
So, with the Armenian presidency in the hands of the reputedly ‘hard-line’ Kocharian another year was to pass before progress on the Karabakh question could be attempted again. The next opportunity presented itself with parliamentary elections that took place at the end of May this year.
In the previous twelve months the loser in the presidential election, Karen Demirchian, had formed a new political party with a vague leftist agenda. In February 1999 the party joined forces with the hard-line, nationalist Republic Party under Defence Minister, Vazgen Sarkisian, to form the Unity Bloc which became the largest and most effective party in the parliamentary elections. Unity won the largest number of votes with 44.67% of the poll after an election plagued, this time , by genuine irregularities. President Kocharian made Sarkisian prime minister in the new government, Demirchian effectively became his deputy as speaker of parliament.
The cooperation between Sarkisian and Demirchian was an unlikely one at first sight anyway. But astute commentators in Armenia had noted that Sarkisian and his Republican Party would not necessarily be unresponsive to the blandishments of the West. This has proved true. In the last three months negotiations have seemed to be up and running again over the status of Karabakh. The Americans have been pushing hard hoping to announce a deal at the upcoming OSCE summit in Istanbul.
President Kocharian has met Azerbaijan’s Haider Aliev on four separate occasions, but more importantly Sarkisian has visited the US and received substantial backing from both the World Bank and IMF to, presumably, reinforce his helpful line on sorting out Karabakh. Relations with Turkey were even beginning to get back on track, thanks to American mediation. So much, then, for the theory that Sarkisian was a hard-line nationalist. It is probably true to say that like many people in the former Soviet Union he too had his price.
But could he have expected that he and Demirchian were to pay with their lives for their dealings with the Americans? Ter Petrosian had merely been toppled, they were slaughtered. Who might have been responsible ? Who benefited?
Although the killers claimed to be taking revenge for the corruption and graft of Armenia’s political class, this is unlikely to be the reason for the killings. Armenia is much less corrupt than many other post-communist countries, if only because it is so much poorer and has had much less foreign investment to steal. Anyway, with the fall of Ter Petrosian the country has probably become marginally less corrupt.
Domestically, there has been a spate of political/mafia killings over the past few years but never in the centre of political life like the parliament. However, the parliamentary chamber has one thing in its favour as a venue for these assassinations the intended victims would be without bodyguards and weapons. Sarkisian, in particular, went everywhere with a bunch of weapon-touting heavies. It was also the one place where both Demirchian and Sarkisian would likely be in the same place at the same time. Although media commentators have insisted that the killers only meant to kill Sarkisian out of their eight victims, it was important for them to also get Demirchian. Both are associated with the negotiations over Karabakh.
Nevertheless, it is Western nonsense to say that Sarkisian was ‘popular’. A certain nonchalance about any threat to his person could explain the ease with which the gunmen got into the parliament which is situated in large grounds behind high railings with various layers of security. It is important to remember that this parliament had been under siege before in recent times. After Ter Petrosian claimed victory in the 1996 presidential election angry crowds stormed the building in protest. Yet despite the urgency of the situation TV pictures on the night of 27th October showed Armenian police, relatively relaxed, facing outwards. They seemed to be unperturbed for their own safety at the hands of the gunmen still, apparently, trigger-happy somewhere in the building behind them .
Both deputy Secretary of State, Stephen Sestanovich and Strobe Talbott have shuttled to and fro between Yerevan and Baku recently. Talbott met Sarkisian and Kocharian shortly before the assassination took place and has since been ordered back to Yerevan by an anxious Madelaine Albright. It is hard to see why the US should have promoted the kind of violence that occurred later in the day the American team was obviously optimistic about a deal on Karabakh. Nor can the United States treat Armenia like Kosovo and lead a NATO intervention to occupy the country under the guise of stopping regional violence and instability there are around 14,000 Russian troops in Armenia who are unlikely to follow the Serb lead and depart meakly north of the border when told to do so. Added to which, if investor confidence is part of the reason for seeking a regional peace deal high-profile assassinations are unlikely to do the trick.
Armenia has always been Russia’s closest ally in the Caucasus. There seem to be no internal conflicts over this nor any domestic pressure to remove Russian troops from the country. In the last year the Armenians have also updated their missile defence system, for example. Although Russia allowed NATO to call the shots in Kosovo it is debatable whether she would allow the United States to take control of the Caucasus republics and their valuable trade routes to the West. If the thorny problem of Karabakh’s status was solved the need for routes to be taken northwards through Russia would recede and with them valuable revenue.
Whether or not these considerations led someone or the other at the behest of some faction or the other in Russia to order these assassinations is an unknown. One thing is certain: woe betide anyone who becomes too closely involved with settling the Karabakh problem . Even though the Americans are still hoping that some kind of deal can be stitched up in Istanbul next month, the parties to such an agreement might well look over their shoulders with some anxiety.