The shooting in Armenia of opposition presidential candidate Paruyr Hayrikian is raising the possibility that the election, scheduled for February 18, could be postponed.
According to preliminary police reports, 63-year-old Hayrikian, a former Soviet dissident and the leader of the tiny National Self-Determination Union, was shot once through the collarbone late January 31 near his house in Yerevan. He was reportedly in stable condition at St. Gregory the Illuminator Hospital. A hospital representative told EurasiaNet.org that the candidate’s vital organs escaped harm by “a miracle.” The motive for the shooting was not immediately clear.
No arrests in connection with the incident had been made as of late February 1, but authorities revealed they had recovered evidence, including a shell casing, from the crime scene. Based on a preliminary ballistics investigation, a police report, , estimates that the assailant shot at Hayrikian twice from close range, as near as 30-to-40 centimeters (about 12 to 16 inches).
Artur Baghdasarian, secretary of the National Security Council, said at a February 1 news conference that President Serzh Sargsyan had ordered the National Security Service, Armenia’s senior investigative department, to prioritize the case. “Our law-enforcement bodies will do their best to find the culprits and punish them because this is a mean and treacherous blow during an election period,” Baghdasarian said in comments broadcast on Armenian Public Television.
The case is being investigated as an assassination attempt against a state, political or public figure intended to disrupt the elections, Baghdasarian said. The charge carries a prison sentence ranging from 12-to-20 years to life behind bars.
What had been a quiet election campaign to date essentially ground to a halt as news of the shooting spread. The six other presidential challenges, along with the incumbent seeking re-election, cancelled public appearances. Whether that campaign suspension proves prolonged could depend on the Constitutional Court and Hayrikian himself.
Under Article 52 of Armenia’s constitution, a presidential election can be postponed for two weeks “[s]hould one of the presidential candidates face insurmountable obstacles.” If the candidate in question does not recover sufficiently during that period of time to continue his or her campaign, the vote would take place 40 days after “the expiration of the two-week period.”
For a delay to occur, “the candidate or his/her trustee should apply to the Constitutional Court and submit the facts about the ‘insurmountable obstacles,’ after which the Court will decide whether they are insurmountable or not,” explained constitutional law expert Vardan Ayvazian.
Hayrikian’s campaign representatives announced that a decision would be made February 4 on whether or not to petition the court to delay the election. According to some news reports, Hayrikian told President Sargsyan that he was inclined to seek a two-week delay.
Political analysts say the incident will impact Armenia’s otherwise peaceful presidential campaign, but they are reluctant to predict precisely how. One of seven opposition candidates to President Sargsyan, the odds-on favorite, Hayrikian has garnered well under 5 percent support in opinion polls.
This is not, however, the first attack against Hayrikian, who has, according to campaign staff, encountered six such attempts in the past, including three attempted shootings in 1991 inside the state radio company.
Autos figured in the other three reported attempts. In 1992, he asserted that someone sabotaged his car tires in an attempt to induce a fatal accident while driving on a mountainous road heading into the disputed Nagorno-Karbakh territory. In 1995, he survived an attempted drive-by shooting near his house. And, finally, in 1996, he discovered “a huge, poisonous snake” in his car while driving to Artashat, a town in southeastern Armenia.
Foreign-relations coordinator Karo Yeghnukian attributed Hayrikian’s survival of these reported incidents to “fate” and “a miracle.”
Hayrikian’s daughter, Nare Hayrikian, said her father’s in-depth involvement with Armenia’s independence movement during the Soviet era (he spent six years in exile in Siberia) motivated the attacks against him in the 1990s. “He knows too much,” she said.
By contrast, Yeghnukian is convinced that this latest shooting was motivated by Hayrikian’s candidate status alone. “Such a frivolous attempt is usually implemented or ordered by weighty powers,” he conjectured. “This is not accidental and, for sure, not personal.”
Some in Armenia have expressed skepticism about the incident, suggesting on social media networks, including Facebook, that it was, in essence, a publicity stunt designed to boost Hayrikian’s chances at the polls. Former Interior Minister Suren Abrahamian dismissed such speculation, reasoning that if it had been a set-up, the shooter “wouldn’t have shot in such a vital area,” where a bullet “might have damaged his lungs, heart.”
The most immediate result of the shooting, opined one analyst, could the influence it has on voters, who still remember the violence that left 10 people dead in clashes between police and opposition protesters after Armenia’s 2008 presidential election. “This is aimed against society, to create and deepen the atmosphere of fear,” commented Edgar Vardanian of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies.
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.