October 27, 1999: Armenia’s Year of Terror

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From TATUL HAKOBYAN’s book – GREEN and BLACK

 

In the spring of 1999, when asked by a student of Yerevan State University how well  the Defense Minister was protected, Vazgen Sargsyan answered, “If the Defense Minister has to think about his security, who needs a minister like that? I am not afraid of anything; nothing threatens me. I do not have domestic enemies; I only have the external ones.”

Several months later, on October 27, Nairi Hunanyan, wearing a long grayish raincoat entered the parliament chamber. He, together with his brother and the other terrorists, opened fire with Kalashnikov machine guns towards Sargsyan (Armenia’s Prime Minister at that time) and other officials sitting in the front row. After the unprecedented bloodbath, the terrorists forced the ministers and members of parliament, alive but bleeding, to lie down on the parliament floor. Then, Hunanyan mounted the National Assembly platform, cursed those killed and continued firing. The brothers, Nairi and Karen Hunanyan, had in one fell swoop, decapitated the leadership of the National Assembly and the government. The death toll – National Assembly Speaker, Karen Demirchyan; Prime Minister, Vazgen Sargsyan; two National Assembly Deputy Speakers; three MPs and one minister.

President Kocharyan, was faced with the most difficult challenge of his ten years of presidency.  He announced, “The events in Armenia’s National Assembly   forces us to unite in order to overcome this difficult test for the entire nation. I send my deepest condolences to the families and friends of my comrades- in- arms, colleagues and friends. I assure you that the authorities are in control of the situation.” On December 21, 1999, Kocharyan gave his take of the tragedy, “In essence, an attempt was made at a coup d’état through terrorism.”

On the day following the shocking crime, Armenia’s first President broke his one and a half year silence. Ter-Petrosyan’s written announcement stated, “While sharing the deep pain and justified indignation of our nation on the tragedy, I would like to nevertheless stress the importance of the control of the current situation. I do not doubt that the authorities are doing their utmost to ensure total law and order and public calm within the republic. I also do not doubt that all levels of society, intellectuals, political figures and journalists, comprehend that today is not the right time to make rash comments and inappropriate assessments. The situation requires all public forces and governmental bodies to unite around the president as one and, in complete harmony and dignity, resist the challenge to our state.”

Eight years later, on October 2007, the first president explained to thousands of citizens gathered in Freedom Square why he had publicly supported the acting president on the day following the tragedy. “Kocharyan called to thank me for my support. That was my first and last conversation with Kocharyan following the change of power. My concern at that moment was not the strengthening of Kocharyan’s position, but the need to avoid chaos and deter potential aggression by Azerbaijan. It is not a secret that the Armenian successes in the Artsakh war were greatly conditioned by the chaos and near-anarchy that accompanied the transition of power in Azerbaijan from Mutalibov to Elchibey and from Elchibey to Aliyev. Therefore, Azerbaijan would not miss the opportunity of considering taking advantage of a similar situation in Armenia.”

Ter-Petrosyan said that the 3,000 year history of the Armenian people and statehood offers only three precedents to the events of October 27. “In 705, the Arabs burnt alive the entire leadership of the Armenian aristocracy, locking them up in several churches in the town of Nakhijevan and its suburb of Khram. On April 24, 1915, the Young Turks beheaded the entire Western Armenian political elite and intelligentsia. And in the 1930s, Stalin purged the most prominent members of the Armenian leadership and intelligentsia. But in this case, the comparison is purely superficial. The massacre of October 27 defies easy parallels with any of these precedents since, in contrast, it was carried out not by foreigners, but by Armenians themselves.”

One week after the day of terror, Aram Sargsyan, Vazgen Sargsyan’s brother, was appointed prime minister. It was an appointment based on the situation at hand, but also a correct one.

Who was behind such a crime? There was talk about the possible involvement of both external and internal forces; numerous hypotheses were circulating. The trial could not shed light on who was behind the terrorists. One of the hypotheses was connected to the NK settlement, in particular, with the ‘Meghri version’ of exchange of territories. In addition, in media and diplomatic circles there was the view that Sargsyan and Demirchyan, killed during the crime, had been against that alternative. Their relatives held the same opinion.

Sargsyan-Demirchyan alliance

In spring of 1999, prior to the parliamentary elections, Vazgen Sargsyan and Karen Demirchyan formed the “Unity” alliance; the People’s and Republican parties united. Sargsyan, leader of the Republican Party, embodied power and invincibility. Demirchyan, Chairman of the People’s Party – embodied wisdom, experience and nostalgia for the Soviet era. Defense Minister Sargsyan, who had played a decisive role in the dismissal of Ter-Petrosyan and who defended Kocharyan against Demirchyan during the presidential elections, formed a strong alliance with the latter.

Nevertheless, Sargsyan considered the role ascribed to him in Armenia’s political and economic processes as unjustly exaggerated. Before the parliamentary elections he declared that he did not want to become president, parliament speaker or prime minister. “I want to remain defense minister,” he said. Describing his relations with President Kocharyan, Sargsyan said, “We are close friends; we are comrades-in-arms and we are also linked by fate. I will never come out against Kocharyan. We also have something to prove. With his departure Ter-Petrosyan has left us with a great responsibility. We are convinced that we were in the right, but we still have to prove to you and the nation that we are.”

About his relations with Ter-Petrosyan, Sargsyan said, “I respected, appreciated and continue to respect Ter-Petrosyan. He is a wise and moral man. Ter-Petrosyan left and took his convictions with him, leaving the field to us. Had Ter-Petrosyan decided not to leave, no one could have dismissed him. Had he dismissed me, I would have left. But in that case the responsibility would have been on him. Now he has left, leaving the responsibility to us. The issue is of responsibility here, not dismissing one another. I did not come out in opposition to Ter-Petrosyan, rather I defended an idea. Our disagreement was on the Karabakh issue.”

During the May 30 parliamentary elections the “Unity” alliance won with about 42 percent of votes. On June 10, Demirchyan was elected Speaker of the National Assembly and one day later Sargsyan was appointed Prime Minister. A strong parliament was formed, in which “Unity” had a quantitative majority and the government was headed by the influential and powerful Vazgen Sargsyan.

Territorial swap; the Meghri story

The most active period in the NK settlement process was during April-December 1999. On April 1, during the CIS Moscow summit, a two and a half hour long discussion took place between Kocharyan and Aliyev. On April 26, in Washington, within the framework of NATO’s 50th anniversary, a new meeting took place between Kocharyan and Aliyev, at the initiative of the U.S.  It marked the beginning of bilateral negotiations at the presidential level between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which continues to date.

In 1999, the possibility of settling the NK conflict by a territorial swap was once again circulated.  Robert Kocharyan explained, “There is a dead-end and the only way out of the dead-end is to discuss all possible versions. And in that context, yes, there was the idea of exchanging territories. The idea differed considerably from what was printed in our media, but nevertheless, I did not accept that version and the current heated discussions are simply senseless. I must say that the version had its rationale. Supposedly it would have resulted in long lasting peace in the region.”

Years later, in February 2008, in response to Ter-Petrosyan’s accusations, Kocharyan said, “The alternative of handing over Meghri was Paul Goble’s suggestion, which was periodically being put into circulation. This version entitled, “Principles of exchanging territories”, was discussed with the representative of one of the Co-chair countries only once. Had the response been positive, it would have later been developed and turned into a Minsk Group proposal. That alternative was rejected by both the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. During our administration, we have rejected the principles of exchanging territories, reasoning that we cannot lose the border with Iran. I have never seen that paper, which Ter-Petrosyan is waving about.”

On February 2008, Ter-Petrosyan, in front of tens of thousands of citizens gathered in Freedom Square, quoted from the document “hidden for ten years” and labeled it as the “biggest conspiracy against Armenia.” Ter-Petrosyan read two articles from the Meghri and NK exchange document.

“The former NKAO and the regions of Shushi and Lachin are to be handed over to Armenia and the Meghri region with 1988 borders is to be handed over to Azerbaijan. Immediately after putting the agreement into force, the safe and voluntary relocation of the residents of the Meghri and the present-day Armenian residents of Aghdam, Fizuli, Jebrayil, Ghubatli, Zangelan and Kelbajar regions to the territory of Armenia will begin. This conspiracy was thwarted in Armenia because of two people. They were Karen Demirchyan and Vazgen Sargsyan. They thwarted that project and paid with their lives.”

The 1992 idea of exchanging territories came from former U.S. State Department employee Paul Goble. In April 2001 when, with the active support of the USA, negotiations were being carried out in Key West, Florida, Goble’s idea essentially served as the basis of the settlement; of course, with noticeable amendments and modifications.

The American diplomat mentioned three NK settlement versions. First, the elimination or emigration of the Armenians of NK, which was impossible from a moral point of view; second, handing NK over to Armenia’s jurisdiction, which was impossible from a political point of view since Azerbaijan would lose territories as well as water reserves and third, bring in a large number of forces to separate the conflicting sides, which was logistically impossible.

Goble saw the possibility of exchanging territories as a way to overcome the dead-end. “Handing over a part of NK to Armenia, handing over the territory that includes the sources of the rivers that supply water to Azerbaijan, together with the Azerbaijani populated villages. Handing over a part of the territories under Armenian control and separating Nakhijevan from Azerbaijan, to Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction.”

Later, in June 2000, Goble accepted making two miscalculations. The first regarded the water flow from NK to Azerbaijan, which is not of such importance. The second, and more significant miscalculation, was minimizing the importance for Armenians and Armenia of having a border with Iran. “In 1992 there was very little trade along that route and I thought it vital that the Armenian’s would surrender that (border) for peace. Now I understand its psychological meaning, i.e., that is important not only for the future development of trade, but in particular, as a door to the non-Turkish part of the world. At that time I underestimated that factor. If I review that project today, I would first suggest that Azerbaijan concede a small part of western Nakhijevan, so that Armenian could have a border with Iran and for Turkey to open its borders with Armenia.”

On February 12, 2008, Vardan Oskanian, then the Armenian Foreign Minister, wrote off Ter-Petrosyan’s ‘revelations’ to exchange Meghri with NK simply as Goble’s project that was circulated in the early 1990’s and flatly and finally rejected in 2000. Oskanian emphasized that the Minsk Group had never presented such a proposal. He insisted that in 1994, Armenia’s authorities discussed Goble’s plan behind closed doors and that Ter-Petrosyan had stated that if the northern part of Nakhijevan, immediately adjacent to Armenia, all the way to Iran’s border was given to Armenia, it would be an acceptable alternative.

Cengiz Çandar, the famous journalist and an aide to President Ozal recalls, “In 1991 Ozal sent me to Baku with a proposal, with which he tried to ascertain Mutalibov’s flexibility in the NK issue. The essence of that proposal was the exchange of territories. The war had just begun. According to that proposal, Azerbaijan forfeited Lachin and a part of NK to Armenia and the other part of NK, including Shushi, as well as Meghri, was handed over to Azerbaijan. Mutalibov said that he could not accept the proposal. I thought that he was taking into consideration the Iranian factor. Mutalibov’s explanation was different. He said that Zangezur had been Azerbaijani soil and Stalin had handed it over to Armenians. Why should we exchange Azerbaijani Lachin for Azerbaijani Zangezur?”

Even though the territorial swap and proposals based on the concept were unacceptable to both   Armenia and Azerbaijan, they have been discussed during different phases of the negotiations. Azerbaijan was striving to create a direct land link with Nakhijevan; however it was obviously not ready to compromise on the NK and Lachin issues. On the other hand, Yerevan wanted to see NK and the Lachin corridor within Armenia’s framework, but for security and other reasons it was not ready to give up its border with Iran.

 

Istanbul

The negotiations between the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan which began in Washington, in April 1999, continued in other countries. In July, the Aliyev-Kocharyan meeting in Geneva was noteworthy since it resulted from the joint initiative of the two presidents. In August, another Kocharyan and Aliyev meeting took place in Geneva. In September, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan negotiated in Yalta and on the Armenia-Nakhijevan border in October. After this last meeting, in a letter addressed to Kocharyan and Aliyev, U.S. Vice President Albert Gore encouraged their efforts and expressed the hope that if the two presidents managed to complete this stage of their work before the OSCE Istanbul summit in November, then “the entire OSCE will express its support of the progress achieved.”

However, Kocharyan  and  I did not support the idea of conditioning the NK peace process with the Istanbul summit; “especially from a geographical point of view the location is not very appropriate for Armenians.” In Istanbul, Kocharyan had already denied the news that a peace agreement was about to be signed during the summit, but that it was supposedly hindered by the tragedy which had taken place in Armenia’s parliament. “The issue has not matured and it was not even envisaged that a document concerning the settlement was to be signed here.”

On October 20, 1999, a month before the OSCE summit, Stephan Sestanovich, an aide to the US Secretary of State and Cary Cavanaugh, the American Minsk Group Co-chair meet with Kocharyan and other Armenian officials, including Vazgen Sargsyan. The next day Sestanovich and Cavanaugh continued the NK negotiations in Baku. Three days after these meetings, Foreign Affairs Minister Tofik Zulfugarov and Eldar Namazov, one of the most important figures in Aliyev’s administration, resigned. Another important official, Vafa Guluzade had resigned earlier.

Both Zulfugarov and Namazov confirmed that at a particular stage in the peace talks the sides had seriously considered a possible territorial swap. That happened prior to the Istanbul summit when, both men point out, “the idea of a territorial swap was in the air.”  The two former officials said they resigned to protest a peace proposal that ran counter to Azerbaijan’s interests. “Prior to the Istanbul summit, agreements were reached that were not suitable for Azerbaijan’s interests. These agreements amounted to granting NK independence, not de jure of course, but de facto,” said Namazov.

According to Aliyev, “… it proved possible to bring the positions very close in October 1999. But after the terrorist act in the Armenia parliament, Armenia gave up on the little agreement we reached.”

It is hard to affirm which side rejected the little agreement the day before the Istanbul summit. It is not clear how close they were to an agreement. Information is also contradictory on what the link was between the terrorist act in Armenia’s parliament and the settlement.

On October 26, 1999 Aliyev met with Strobe Talbott, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State. On the morning of October 27, Kocharyan had a telephone conversation with Yeltsin. On the same day the Armenian president met with Talbott. A few hours later, when the American delegation was traveling from Yerevan to Ankara via Moscow in order to continue the NK discussions, shots rang out in Armenia’s National Assembly. The allegation that the terrorist act was connected with the NK settlement was based on this coincidence. Moreover, opinions were circulating that Vazgen Sargsyan and Karen Demirchyan had been against the territorial swap.

“A few days before the incident, Karen told Stepan and me that it had been decided to open a road through Meghri. He said that everybody agreed. They were even happy, because large sums of money had been promised and they thought they could improve conditions in Armenia with that money. Vazgen joined Karen very soon. He became convinced that it was not right to hand over Meghri. He used to say that they could not convince him because handing over Meghri would put an end to Armenia”, says Rima Demirchyan.17

Vagharshak Haroutunyan also confirmed that the territorial swap had been seriously discussed. “As defense minister, I participated in the discussions of that document. It was Vazgen Sargsyan who informed me about the Meghri version the first time. After that, during the meeting between Kocharyan and Aliyev and Abiyev and me, Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister talked about it in Sadarak. Kocharyan then presented that version to me and said that it was a good solution.  Afterwards, I met with the Minsk Group Co-chairs. Aram Sargsyan has also held discussions concerning this issue with the Co-chairs.”

American retired diplomat Peter Rosenblatt, who visited the region several times in 1999, has insisted, “The day before the October 27 dreadful massacre, Prime Minister Sargsyan completely agreed with Kocharyan. That is what I was told. I met with Sargsyan a few days before the murder and I got the impression he did not disclose everything concerning the negotiations, but those who were with Sargsyan during the last days of his life tell me that he completely agreed with Kocharyan.”

The timing of the killings, just after Strobe Talbott had met Vazgen Sargsyan, was certainly very striking, writes Thomas de Waal. Talbott was later quoted as saying that the two sides were “very, very close” to agreement and called the massacre “a human, political, and geopolitical catastrophe.” “One line of speculation was that the attackers had been instructed to prevent an imminent breakthrough on NK by getting rid of Sargsyan, who was now prepared to support a peace deal. Yet several other clues suggest that the timing was a coincidence and that the killings probably had a domestic political motive. Throughout the all-night vigil in parliament, the Hunanyan brothers did not mention NK. If someone had planned to derail the NK peace process, then Sargsyan was not the obvious first target – it was not yet known that he had actually signed on to a peace agreement.”