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Night of the Long Knives

Armenian News Network / Groong
January 24, 2000

By Onnik Krikorian


In an article published in the "Moscow Obshchaya Gazeta" last week,
Yerevan sociologist Ludmilla Arutunyan expressed her concerns that the
'social underpinnings' behind the assassination of Prime Minister
Vazgen Sarkisyan and several others in the Armenian National Assembly
on 27 October 1999 have been disregarded.  According to the article,
some are already asking - and most notably, among the general
population rather than in the political circles of Yerevan, - why
Nairi Hunanyan could not have acted alone. In the immediate aftermath
of the shootings, responses from journalists, newswires and media
outlets varied. Armenia and the Diaspora attempted to discredit
Hunanyan's accusations that the Armenian Government were 'drinking the
blood of the Armenian people,' while the western media chose to
interpret the events as a coup d'etat. On the streets of Yerevan
however, the general population could not have cared less, arguing
that such events were bound to happen. The amount of corruption and
apathy in the corridors of power had become overwhelming.

Indeed, the true nature of society in Armenia must seem like one of
the most safely guarded secrets to the average Armenian. Few in the
Diaspora are fully aware of the real disparity of wealth within the
country, and the situation that the majority has to endure while a
tiny elite lives a life of decadent luxury. Many among the population
tend to believe that the wealth of this elite has come through
personal contacts within government and through theft and deceit,
rather than through honest, hard work. Even the most casual foreign
visitors to the country question the true state of the economy after
visiting Gyumri, the second largest city in Armenia devastated by the
1988 earthquake, and raise some very sensitive questions regarding the
final destination of the millions of dollars in foreign aid that have
poured into the country since independence.

The poor state of the economy has also had other ramifications in
contemporary society. The number of 'clandestine' abortions and an
increase in narcotics use and prostitution represent the reality that
Armenian society is in a real crisis. Many families have no option but
to put their children into institutions, removing them from the
healthy environment of a family unit, while others `less fortunate'
resort to begging on the streets.  Elsewhere in Yerevan, pensioners
fight off the strays in order to scavenge through trash that remains
uncollected for weeks at a time.

Hunanyan accused the Armenian government of corruption and abandoning
the Armenian people. If so many agree, why are analysts and
journalists instead looking for other reasons? After the tragic events
of 27 October, the Armenian Government should have instead owned up to
the reality, and promised to put things right. Armenia's `dirty
laundry' went on show throughout the world, and it seemed impossible
that denial could continue any longer.  However that is, in essence,
what is happening.

Those that deny that the statements made by Hunanyan could have been
reason enough for his actions, do so often because they were the
target of such accusations. But rather than acknowledge this reality,
politically expedient forces in the country are attempting to use the
situation to stage their own 'softer' coup. Every day, new accusations
of complicity emerge, and not least against those prominent government
and public figures who have enemies within circles close to the
Military Prosecutor's Office responsible for the investigation.

While some politicians, - some with serious accusations against them -
are allowed to continue with their political and economic careers,
others are unconstitutionally arrested and detained on arbitrary
"evidence" that is never produced in the course of an investigation
that has become Armenia's Night Of The Long Knives. Whatever
'confessions' Hunanyan may give from the isolation of a prison cell
will forever remain in doubt, if only because of the concerns that
international Human Rights organizations have regarding the tendency
for police to resort to beatings in order to retrieve the statements
that their superiors require.

Other `explanations' for the events in the National Assembly have also
emerged. Some accuse Hunanyan of representing an ultra-nationalist
force that attempted to disrupt the peace talks between Armenia and
Azerbaijan over the future of Nagorno Karabagh. However, they have not
provided sufficient reason why Sarkisyan was chosen as the main
target.  The former Defense Minister was of such significant political
force in both Armenia and Karabagh that the two republics are now
considerably weaker without him.

Some analysts have also suggested that the investigation itself is a
'softer coup'. Certainly, Special Prosecutor Gagik Jahangirian's
background raises great concerns regarding the legitimacy of the
investigation. It's still unclear how the president could entrust such
a crucial matter to a man vitally associated with the falsification of
the presidential elections of 1996 in favor of the then incumbent and
leader of the Armenian National Movement leader, former president
Levon Ter-Petrossian.  Ter-Petrossian lost legitimacy and the support
of the Armenian people a year later, and resigned to make room for
current president Robert Kocharian.

Now, Jahangirian's investigation has centered on supporters of this
presidency. Kocharian is under intense criticism for the lax security
that permitted the events of October 27 to occur, but the truth is
that any control the president has had was always weak. Whether as
Defense or Prime Minister, Vazgen Sarkisyan was the real force in
Armenia, with the power to make or break presidents. As Sarkisyan
died, so did the cohesion of the political system in the country. If
anything, President Kocharian is showing significant political courage
and strength under the circumstances, fully understanding that his
failure will lead to greater political instability within the country.

Whether Kocharian could have prevented the bloodshed in the National
Assembly is almost irrelevant. Those responsible for the events of 27
October were instead the entire Armenian Parliament, and the local
businessmen who have grown rich to the detriment of their own people.
Life in the country had become the same as in other corrupt
former-Soviet republics, with the socio-economic reality resulting in
a well-publicized migration from the country estimated at around one
million. Rather than address the reasons given by Hunanyan for his
actions, political forces in the country are instead attempting to
exploit the chaos that has emerged in a country where the political
system is built on a deeply rooted anti-democratic mindset, and where,
until recently, Vazgen Sarkisyan was king.

Nairi Hunanyan may forever remain the only person to know his real
motives, and whether he was acting alone or as spearhead for a greater
agenda may be irrelevant. He has already achieved most of his aims by
throwing Armenia's entire political system into disarray, and if there
was any real determination to uncover the truth behind the events in
the National Assembly, an impartial committee for the oversight of the
investigation, whether foreign or domestic, would not have been
summarily dismissed by the investigators. Instead, the manipulation of
the investigations will damage the republic's standing abroad, at a
time when the international community is monitoring its legal and
judicial systems to determine its eligibility for integration into
international bodies such as the World Trade Organization and the
Council of Europe.

Meanwhile, the Armenian People may well question why, after events of
such magnitude, their legitimate concerns remain ignored. The sad
reality remains that similar tragedies may occur again in the future,
unless the Armenian government takes responsibility for the population
of a country which, as Hunanyan pointed out, `people dream only of
leaving.'

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Onnik Krikorian is a journalist specialising in Kurdish affairs.
His photographs and analysis of the Kurdish situation in Turkey
and Armenia can be found online at:
    http://www.freespeech.org/oneworld/photo/

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