The ramifications of the October attack on the parliament are still being felt in Armenia. Filling the power vacuum created by the assassinations of six MPs, including Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkissian and Parliament Speaker Karen Demirchian, is proving difficult. As a result, domestic politics remains enveloped by a mood of uncertainty, damaging prospects for regional stability.
"The unresolved killings of the October 27 remains a source of instability," said Hmayak Hovannisyan, a leading member of Armenia's Peoples Party, adding "the public still does not know whether the terrorist act was done by the group apprehended, or whether there was an organized force behind them."
The attack came at a time when Armenia was just beginning to emerge from the negative consequences connected with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Negotiators seemed on the verge of achieving a breakthrough in negotiations with Azerbaijan that aimed to produce a settlement to the 12 year-old Karabakh conflict.
"After the parliament killings, we succeeded in preserving the basis of state institutions, and protecting our society from generalized chaos," according to Hovannisyan. Nevertheless, the killings created a power vacuum in the top leadership that has paralyzed the decision-making process, and ignited a dangerous power struggle.
The March 22 assassination attempt against the self-declared president of Karabakh, Arkady Ghukassian, placed new stress on the political establishment in Armenia. In addition, it has shaken public confidence. "Terrorism has become an inseparable part of our daily routine," said Armenian Presidential Human Rights Commission chairman Paruyr Harikian.
It is not clear whether there is direct link between the Karabakh violence and the October 27 parliament carnage. President Robert Kocharian, during a recent visit to Georgia, downplayed the assassination attempt on Ghukassian, attributing it to internal infighting. Nevertheless, the attempt, and Yerevan's reaction to it, could influence future efforts to get negotiations with Azerbaijan back on track.
Currently, an uneasy power-balance exists in Armenia, where political observers identify four power groups:
The first is gathered around President Kocharian and the former head of the National Security Agency, Serge Sarkissian. Both personalities originate from Nagorno-Karabakh. The second group comes from the upper echelons of the Army, which following the parliament killings has demonstrated a growing inclination to meddle in political life. The third is the Armenian National Movement (H.H.Sh.), the former ruling party that is led by Levon Ter-Petrossian, the country's first post-Soviet president. Although he lost power in 1998, Ter-Petrossian and his political movement retain a significant amount of influence. The H.H.Sh. has increased its activities lately and is demanding the resignation of president Kocharian, charging that he is unable to govern. The fourth is a group of Karabakh war veterans known as Yerkrapah, which was founded by former Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkissian. Yerkrapah is considered one of the most powerful groups in the republic. The paramilitary force controls much of the gray economy in Armenia, and has much influence over important state structures. Since the death of Vazgen Sarkissian, the group has demonstrated its opposition to the president, and some of its members have called for Kocharian's resignation. The appointment of Armen Sarkissian, Vazgen's brother, to the post of prime minister underscored the influence of Yerkrapah. At the same time, the appointment did not cause the movement to cease its criticism of the president. Following a party conference in February, Yerkrapah declared that any agreement between Yerevan and Baku on a Karabakh political settlement would require the group's prior approval. This declaration was clearly designed to undermine Kocharian's authority. Indeed, Yerkrapah is probably strong enough to take power, but it lacks a charismatic leader, and unified outlook among its heterogeneous members.
In a recent speech Vazgen Manukian, a former prime minister and the head of the National Democratic Union (NDU), described the domestic political situation in Armenia as "a diktat of the military-feudal clan." Lawyers and some newspapers have voiced suspicion that investigators, who are close to political associates of the slain prime minister, have coerced testimony in order to implicate senior officials and politicians. Prime targets of the prosecutor have included political allies of the president, including a former advisor on foreign affairs (Alexander Harutyunian), as well as a news editor at the state-owned Armenian National Television.
As a result, Kocharian has been on the defensive since October. In regional affairs, he has sought to maintain a sense of continuity, despite his domestic difficulties. In recent months, Kocharian has continued his direct meetings with Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev. However, the domestic political infighting in Armenia casts doubt on prospects for a Karabakh agreement. "The Karabakh negotiations cannot continue until there is stability in Yerevan," said a high ranking Armenian official, who did not want his name published.
The consequences of the October killings are evident. The alliance between President Kocharian, the popular former Soviet leader Karen Demirchian, and Vazgen Sarkissian, a tough politician with much influence in the Army and the Yerkrapah union, was an effective political coalition that inspired hope. In the days before the parliament attack, many were optimistic that a peace agreement could be reached with Azerbaijan, and Sarkissian would be successful in conducting an anti-corruption campaign designed to stimulate investment. Armenia appeared poised to turn a corner in its state-building endeavors.
The killings in October put an end to optimism. There is little predictability surrounding domestic politics these days. And under such uncertain circumstances, it would not be surprising if the outflow of people from Armenia continued. Already, official statistics show that over 700,000 Armenians, or one-fifth of the entire population, emigrated during the 1990s. If that emigration pace continues, the state building challenges facing Armenia may grow.
Vicken Cheterian is a freelance journalist, who specializes in Caucasus and Central Asian political affairs.