There is no shortage of conspiracy theories surrounding the October 1999 Armenian parliament attack, which left eight political leaders dead. Yet, so far, there have been no bombshell revelations confirming a conspiracy during the trial of those charged with carrying out the parliamentary assassinations. Instead, the ongoing testimony has fueled popular concerns about stability in Armenia. The trial and its conduct are developing into a major test for Armenian political institutions.
Ever since the shootings, Armenians have wondered whether the five accused gunmen were acting on their own, or were part of a broader plot. Conspiracy theorists point out that the gunmen entered the legislature with relative ease, and targeted key leaders of parliamentary factions, including then Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian and Speaker Karen Demirchian, the leaders of the Republic Party (RP) and People's Party (PP), respectively.
Many of those who believe in the existence of a conspiracy focus their attention on President Robert Kocharian, who benefited politically from the sudden elimination of Sargsian and Demirchian, two possible powerful political rivals. Others suspect the killings might have been the work of foreign governments. Various politicians have suggested that the United States, Russia, France, Turkey and Azerbaijan may have played a role in the assassinations.
The shooting trial began in February. At present, only Nairi Hunanian, the alleged ringleader of the terrorist group, has testified. Hunanian, a 34-year-old former journalist, insists that nobody but himself is responsible for either the planning or the execution of the assault. He explained his action as an attempt to stop the country's moving toward collapse, which, he believed, was mainly due to the activities of Sargsian.
According to Hunanian, the gunmen didn't intend to kill anyone. Instead, they planned to take the MPs hostage, then make a popular appeal for the government's resignation. Under Hunanian's planned scenario, a provisional government, which he would lead, would have been created once the Sargsian government had been removed. According to Hunanian, stress caused the gunmen to start shooting.
Hunanian had prepared documents concerning the envisaged provisional government that he intended Demirchian to sign, indicating that the gunmen did not intend to kill the speaker. Another supposed indicator against the existence of a larger conspiracy is the fact that the gunmen comprised Hunanian's relatives and close friends. Also noteworthy is the fact that Hunanian began plotting the parliament assualt after reportedly being rejected for a position on the presidential staff.
The investigation into the parliament shootings was embroiled in controversy. Hunanian asserted that some of his testimony was "artificial and extracted by violence." During the preliminary enquiry, he supposedly identified people who allegedly instigated the killings, or promised assistance to the killers. Among them was Alexan Harutiunian, then the head of the President's staff -- who also was arrested, then released in June, 2000. In court, Hunanian has denied receiving outside help or support.
The investigation, as well as the conduct of the trial, have caused a rupture of Armenia's political establishment. One group believes the investigation was lawful, and wants the trial to proceed on its current course. A second group is convinced Hunanian's gunmen did not act alone, and believes the preliminary investigation and the trial have been moving in a wrong direction, thereby concealing the true organizers of the crime.
Heading the first group is President Kocharian -- backed by several political parties, including the RP. Andranik Margarian, the RP's leader, has served as prime minister since May 2000. The second group comprises, among others, leaders of the PP, which is now led by Stepan Demirchian, the son of the late parliament speaker. Also belonging to the second group are former RP members who have created a new party named "Hanrapetutiun" (Republic) -- led by Aram Sargsian, the younger brother of Vazgen.
The members of the second group in fact vary greatly in their assessments of the trial, in particular, they have no common opinion as to who the instigators or supporters of Hunanian's gang are. They are united largely by their discontent with the way events are unfolding. Recently, leaders of the second group initiated a special session of the National Assembly, and called for the establishment of a parliamentary commission to investigate the circumstances surrounding Hunanian's imprisonment. There have been allegations that Hunanian received coaching on how to provide testimony favorable to the president and his allies. Leaders of the first group labeled the allegation "ridiculous," yet supported the measure to create a special commission.
"Some deputies, fearing they might be accused of patronizing the criminals, and others out of hypocrisy, voted in favor of the decision," one member of parliament said.
Thus far, the assassination trial's most important consequence is the total collapse of the governing Miasnutiun coalition in parliament. The ideological differences between the RP and PP have been long apparent, pre-dating the October 1999 killings. Those differences became magnified in the parliament shooting's aftermath. They have reached the point today that Margarian's government receives virtually no support from PP legislators. Instead it depends on the support of the President and some other factions of the National Assembly. The coalition is unstable, but given Kocharian's support, many experts expect the current government to survive for a least one more year. However, conditions could rapidly shift, depending in large part on trial developments. There is still plenty of testimony to be heard.
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.