by Louise Manoogian Simone
On Wednesday, October 27, five gunmen, admitted into the parliament building posing as journalists, quickly proceeded to the Assembly Hall where top government officials were presenting a financial report to some forty parliamentarians. With machine guns hidden in the building beforehand, in a matter of seconds the gunmen killed four of the five top officials of the Armenian government, Speaker of the Parliament Karen Demirchian who was next in line to the President according to the constitution, Prime Minister Vazken Sarkissian and deputy speakers of the Parliament Yuri Bakhshian and Ruben Miroyan. The other targeted victims were Minister of Emergency affairs and former Prime Minister of Karabakh Leonard Petrossian and three additional Parliamentarians Armenak Armenakian, Mikael Kotanian and Henrik Abrahamian.
Immediately after the murders, with the terrorists holding the parliamentarians hostage, along with the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Ministers of Health, Finance and Interior, the long hours of negotiations began. Midway through, the gunmen released seven wounded parliamentarians, one in critical condition, for emergency medical treatment plus a number of journalists who were covering the meeting. Demanding airtime on television to speak to the “people” and assurance that their personal safety would be guaranteed, after some eighteen hours during which President Kocharian personally supervised the negotiations, the siege came to an end when the five gunmen, spokesman Nairi Hunanian (a radical known to a number of deputies in the parliament), his younger brother Karen, his uncle Vram Galstian, accomplices Derenik Bejanian and Edward Grigorian (a surgeon at one of the leading Yerevan hospitals) were arrested and taken to prison.
Shortly later three others parked in a yellow van outside the building were apprehended and several days later three other accomplices were taken into custody. By the following week one parliamentarian, closely associated with the gunmen, was also arrested. The reason for this terrorism, as stated by Nairi Hunanian, “A revolution aimed to overthrow the regime of ‘bloodsuckers’.”
Shock, horror, grief, loss.
The first news of the slaughter came on CNN and Russian television while Armenian TV stations remained silent until late evening. Initially, bulletins announced that top government officials were wounded giving all of us a sense of some hope. But, soon enough, the calls came from Armenia confirming the worst. How could this happen? Why wasn’t there more security? But then we have to remember these were officials who for years had walked the streets, mingling with their fellow Armenians. Karen Demirchian campaigned last year for the presidency and this year for parliament, surrounded day in and day out by thousands and thousands of residents in cities, towns and villages throughout the country. Vazken Sarkissian survived a war in Karabakh, freely visited local institutions, attended cultural events and toured the nation as did the parliamentarians, each of whom lived normal lives, traveling to and from work unguarded.
Three days of mourning preceded the Sunday, October 31st funeral services for the victims. Grieving families, friends, colleagues and representatives from 30 countries including Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Georgian President Edward Shevardnadze; Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers and Parliament Speakers from Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Ukraine, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Great Britain, Iran and Canada; Ministers from China, Greece, Egypt, Italy, Norway and Turkey; delegations from France, United States, Finland, Switzerland and Sweden filled the Opera Hall to pay their last respects. Prayers were given by His Holiness Karekin II, the newly-elected Catholicos of All Armenians and His Holiness Catholicos Aram I of the Great House of Cilicia, accompanied by a number of worldwide bishops, followed by a closing memorial from President Robert Kocharian.
Sitting in the Opera Hall, staring at the open caskets on the stage with not a sound to be heard from the 2500 people present except the wails now and then from a mourning family member, we were all just struck-dumb. Could this be real? Or just a nightmare. It was for many of us the saddest, most emotional experience we had ever witnessed. All we could think was ‘They didn’t deserve this, the country didn’t deserve this.’ How would we ever recover from such a violent, vengeful act of terrorism? After this, what could the future hold for a country already in the throes of severe economic and social problems?
Tens of thousands of citizens observed the funeral processions as the caskets were taken to different resting-places. Karen Demirchian’s family and friends walked behind his casket some several miles to the Pantheon Cemetery where many distinguished intellectuals and politicians are buried. Leonard Petrossian, Yuri Bakhshian, Ruben Miroyan, Armenak Armenakian, Mikael Kotanian and Henrik Abrahamian were accompanied to various family burial grounds. The most dramatic was the cortege for Vazken Sarkissian. His casket was pulled by an army gun-carrier painted white with hundreds of military men escorting him to Yerabloor, the cemetery honoring those killed during the war in Karabakh.
Throughout the week, the city was quiet. One felt the majority were trying to avoid accepting the enormity of the tragic event, some were in shock, some scared of what might happen next, others, no doubt, losing faith that the public would ever know who was behind this deadly plot. As the days wore on, while some officials called this a random act by a handful of fanatics, most of the population, including many in government and the military, became convinced that these were not just a few zealots who were protesting the hardships in these difficult years, but a well-planned execution of leaders who were implementing decisions which endangered the self-interests of certain factions or groups. Several politicians have publicly commented that after the murders, the gunmen seemed to calm down, as if they were waiting for their organizers to arrive in what might have actually been an attempted coup d’état.
Whatever the outcome, the shocking murder of eight high ranking officials is a terrible, terrible loss to their families, to the State and its population, to Armenians throughout the world and a disaster to the image of Armenia. In Armenia and throughout the former Soviet Union, the transition from communism to democracy seems to become more and more violent each year. The profusion of too many political parties vying for power, the greediness of a select group depriving the welfare of the masses, countless unsolved assassinations and the yellow journalism of local newspapers fomenting discontent have given people little hope. The best and the brightest, along with millions of others, have left and continue to leave, trying to reestablish their lives in a more promising region of the world.
The deaths of Vazken Sarkissian and Karen Demirchian are a disastrous setback for Armenia. A catastrophe that will take a long time to overcome. So much seemed promising this year as these two able, determined, experienced and charismatic figures joined President Robert Kocharian to address the economic and social issues facing Armenia today. They were in every way opposites who, to the amazement of all, merged their political parties and constituents in hopes of having a greater power base to break the deadlock, to make the changes necessary to move the country forward. As Demirchian once said, “When you’re in a hole, there is no right or left. There is only up and out.”
Karen Demirchian, the 67 year-old former First Secretary of the Communist Party from 1974 to 1988, reappeared on the political scene in 1998 when he decided to campaign for President. Remaining in the background through the early years of independence, he assumed directorship of the Armelectromash factory, the largest plant in Armenia which once employed 10,000 workers. His sudden and unexpected presidential race attracted many voters who remembered the “good old days” of job security, health benefits and ample food subsidies.
While many of us from the West shuddered to think that the communist philosophy may once again influence Armenia, Mr. Demirchian’s enjoyable and insightful humor, and his caustic criticism of government mistakes in the economic and social sphere could not be ignored and one could not forget that during his reign as First Secretary, Armenia, more than any other republic in the Soviet Union, continued to promote its history, culture, language and religion. One could also not help but admire that he and his Prime Minister Fadey Sarkisian (now president of the National Academy of Sciences), unlike most of their colleagues, never left the country even though they could have quite comfortably settled elsewhere.
After the 1998 presidential elections, his partnership with Vazken Sarkissian saw the birth of a new political party, Miasnutyun (Unity), and on that ticket Demirchian successfully ran for parliament. An authoritative, respected figure he was easily elected Speaker. There were high expectations that Demirchian would control the divisions, jealousies and controversies so long common among the deputies in parliament. He was, at this given juncture, a unique personality to accomplish the task he had assumed.
Forty year-old Vazken Sarkissian was a “Hero” of Armenia. I think even those who were his adversaries would hesitate to disagree. Of all the notable politicians or government officials over the past ten years, I have never seen anyone who matured as much as he did. Originally a teacher, writer, one of the founding members of the Karabakh movement and a commander of volunteer attachments in the war with Azerbaijan, he began his government experience as Defense Minister in 1991, then again in 1995, when he, almost single-handedly, concentrated all his efforts in building and organizing the armed forces of Armenia. He was appointed Prime Minister in 1999.
For years I never saw him in anything but battle fatigues whether it be in public, at a meeting, banquet or in a private home. With this outward appearance it was easy to simply assume he was just another soldier or fedayee (guerilla fighter), interested only in “Defense.” Some months before the 1998 presidential campaign began, he acquired a new look, suits, ties and a trimmed beard and more important gave a number of interesting analytical interviews on television, expressing his observations on the past, present and future. Remembering his participation in the controversial 1995 and 1996 elections, it was difficult to accept this seemingly objective performance. But his establishment of the Yerkrapah Party, then the merger with Demirchian to form the new Unity Party bloc was extremely well organized and a brilliant move. When the rumors began that he might be appointed Prime Minister, it was again a surprise. He was an army man, what could he possibly know about national budgets, industry, foreign investments, social welfare and the diaspora.
It soon became obvious that no one should underestimate Vazken Sarkissian. Everyone who had a meeting with him as Prime Minister left his office unbelievably impressed. He had a great sense of humor and grasped an issue quickly. He made an effort to know who was coming to see him and for what purpose, background material was prepared and organized in a folder on his desk and he was always ready to make a decision. His word was as good as gold. He was devoted to his family, to his country and to his people. He was comfortable with the highest dignitary or the lowliest villager. It is tragic that we will never know, given time, what he could have accomplished.
As we go to press, the full story of October 27 has yet to be revealed. Regardless of why and who, the government of Armenia has been shaken. President Kocharian has appointed Aram Sarkissian, brother of Vazken, as Prime Minister, the parliament has elected Armen Khachaturian, a close colleague of Karen Demirchian, as Speaker and various ministers are due to be replaced. It remains to be seen if we can all, in and out of Armenia, pull together and unite our forces to overcome this tragic crisis.