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Armenian President Faces Resignation Calls
Opposition parties are calling for Armenian president Robert Kocharian to resign after a probe into a political assassination appeared to implicate members of his inner circle.
Last October, the prime minister, Vazgen Sarkisian, the speaker and six top politicians were gunned down when five assassins burst into the parliament building in Yerevan. Now officials investigating the murder claim several leads point towards the involvement of members of the president's inner circle and warn that arrests are imminent.
The resignation issue hit the headlines last week during Kocharian's official visit to Israel. Vazgen Manukian, leader of opposition National Democratic Union (NDU), claimed the president had lost political control.
"It would be better for the country as a whole if he realised that he can no longer continue in this way," Manukian said. An atmosphere of crisis and mistrust currently pervaded Armenia and needed to be tackled, he said.
Manukian's announcement whipped up a furore among other opposition parties, with several prominent political figures calling for early presidential elections. The move reflects a dramatic about-face by opposition politicians, who voted unanimously against demands for the president to resign in December last year.
Arthur Baghdasarian, chairman of Orinats Yerkir ("Country of Law") party, insisted that Kocharian's resignation was a political necessity, "if no practical steps are taken to defuse the present crisis."
Only Vahan Hovanesian, of the Dashnaktsutiun party, warned against the consequences of a sudden change in the nation's leadership.
On his return from Israel, Kocharian refused to comment on the situation. His spokesman, Vahe Gabrielian, told the independent TV channel, Ar, that's there is no basis for discussing early presidential elections at this stage.
Armenia's military prosecutor, Gagik Jhangirian, whose office is conducting the investigation into last year's political assassination, said he does not exclude the possibility of questioning Kocharian in the course of his enquiries.
Jhangirian, who said at least one member of the ruling elite was likely to be arrested in the near future, believes the October 27 shooting was part of an attempted coup d'etat.
The complex nature of the investigation is reflected by the growing list of suspects arrested and interrogated in connection with the gun attack.
Meanwhile, speculation that the ruling elite may somehow be implicated is rife. "The presidential connection is the most popular version of events today," said Yerevan journalist Arman Karapetian.
"As the investigation progresses, the trail seems to lead closer and closer to the head of state. Two close allies have already been arrested, including Alexan Harutiunian, former head of the presidential administration and an advisor to Kocharian at the time of the attack."
A recent visit by Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian to London has further fuelled conjecture that political ructions are imminent. A source close to the ruling Miasnutiun ("Unity") party claims the prime minister met Armen Sarkisian (no relation), Armenia's ambassador to Great Britain, in a bid to persuade him to stand for president.
Armen Sarkisian was the prime minister of the former Soviet republic from 1996 to 1997. The source said that the ambassador had accepted the offer. The Armenian embassy in London refused to comment.
Andranik Markarian, head of Mianutiun's parliamentary wing, said the president's fate depended on the outcome of the military investigation. The party is thought to have discussed the resignation issue at a closed meeting on January 17, but could not agree on a suitable successor to Kocharian.
The opposition fears the ruling party will impose a new leader with no democratic mandate.
"Kocharian has yet to announce his intention to resign but they discuss the candidacy of a new president as if the resignation were a fait accompli and the elections were just a formality," said the former mayor of Yerevan, Vahagn Khachatrian.
Ara Sahakian, former vice-speaker and an ally of Armenia's first president Levon Ter-Petrosian, said, "Those who brought Robert Kocharian to power will cast him aside. He is only ruling the country today because Miasnutiun lacks an outspoken leader and a strong candidate for the presidential chair. As soon as the party finds its man, Kocharian will be forced to resign, or simply retired."
Mark Grigorian is IWPR Project Editor in Yerevan and Director of the NGO Co-operation and Democracy.
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