Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Ten Years Later, Deadly Shooting In Armenian Parliament Still Echoes
Ten years ago today, the tedium of an Armenian parliamentary question-and-answer session was shattered by shouts and the rattle of gunfire.
Five heavily armed gunmen burst into the chamber, spraying a hail of bullets that left Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian, parliament speaker Karen Demirchian, and several other leading politicians dead.
RFE/RL correspondent Ruzanna Khachatrian was among the journalists covering parliament that day and her report from the scene captured the unfolding horror.
"A group of young men opened fire on the prime minister and the deputies. We're now hiding under the benches and the firing is still going on," she reported. "The gunmen are shouting that if anyone comes near the parliament building, they will be shot. The firing is coming from the security services office.
"One of the wounded deputies has been carried out. The leader of the gunmen is shouting about how the government has been 'sucking the blood of the people.' "
Marked The End
The brazen act of political terrorism, captured in television footage that was shown repeatedly to the nation in the days that followed, traumatized the small South Caucasus country.
It is not always easy to define precise turning points in a country's history, but for post-Soviet Armenia, the tragedy of October 27, 1999, was just such a moment.
Looking back a decade later, the parliament shooting marked the end of Armenia's development as an emerging democracy with balanced political and social institutions, and the beginning of its slide into a semi-authoritarian state dominated by a powerful president.
Anna Israelian was also reporting from parliament that day, for the leading independent newspaper "Aravot," and remembers the trauma of witnessing the murders.
"After leaving the parliament chamber together with RFE/RL reporter Ruzanna Khachatrian, we hid in the parliament's library. We used armchairs to barricade ourselves near the door and huddled together in one corner. It seemed to us that there were not only those five or six gunmen who had burst into the parliament chamber, but that it must have been a larger group," she recalls.
"We kept waiting for an attack. I was really horrified, because it was the first time in my life that I saw people being killed before my own eyes. It was a terrible stress that I haven't been able to overcome."
The gunmen claimed to be carrying out a coup d'etat, prompted by what their ringleader, former journalist Nairi Hunanian, called "the miserable situation of our people."
"The people are starving. In Armenia, there is no positive movement or evolution," Hunanian said, speaking to journalists during a brief hostage standoff that followed the shootings.
The five men surrendered to authorities on the morning of October 28, and in 2003 they were sentenced to life in prison for the murders. During the trial, Hunanian said that by killing Sargsian, he had helped restore "constitutional order" by strengthening the position of then-President Robert Kocharian. (Neither current President Serzh Sargsian nor Prime Minister Tigran Sargsian is related to the slain prime minister.)
The long trial of the gunmen, however, failed to shed light on key questions, including how the former journalist was able to get an accreditation to parliament through Armenian state television, or how the men were able to get their weapons and ammunition into the chamber
The trial was hastily brought to an end just as Hunanian was reportedly about to reveal new information about the crime, and many are convinced that the real masterminds of the shooting remain unknown. One of the gunmen, Vram Galstian, was found hanged in his prison cell in April 2004, an apparent suicide.
Karine Kalantarian is an RFE/RL correspondent in Yerevan who covered the trial for nearly four years. She says the long process failed to bring closure to the case.
"The preliminary investigation that lasted about a year, and the court proceedings that lasted for more than three years, revealed little more than was clear already within days of the terrorist attack," Kalantarian says. "Suspicions that the terrorist act could have been the work of a mastermind were not dispelled."
Analysts agree that the events of October 27 were deeply traumatic for the entire country, shaking confidence that the newly independent state was capable of governing itself. Armenians have never fully recovered from the feelings of vulnerability and shock that were produced by seeing repeatedly on television how vicious thugs were able to gun down the country's most powerful politicians in the parliament chamber.
In the wake of the tragedy, President Kocharian was able to quickly consolidate power, and in the ensuing years he was able to dismantle Armenia's emerging democratic institutions. The legislature ceased to be an independent locus of political power. The country's leading independent television station was closed down. Political parties were weakened to the point of irrelevance.
'Big Question Mark'
Journalist Israelian, who now reports for RFE/RL in Yerevan, says Armenia's trend toward semi-authoritarian rule began on October 27, 1999.
"The question that has troubled people for a decade is whether or not there was a force that stood behind, and guided, the gunmen in the parliament chamber," she says. "That question has yet to receive a clear and well-established answer. A big question mark remains.
"As of now, only one thing is clear. After October 27, authority in Armenia became very monolithic, with a single center."
The shooting also derailed the process of settling the conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.
On the very day of the 1999 shootings, Prime Minister Sargsian had met with a smiling U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, and there was a palpable sense that a road map for regulating the dispute was within reach.
As Kocharian -- who was president of the self-declared government of Nagorno-Karabakh from 1994-97 -- solidified his grip on power, those hopes became increasingly elusive.
By Robert Coalson, Harry Tamrazian. Published on 27 October 2009
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of S & D.