Vazgen Sarkissian

Felix Corley
Friday 29 October 1999 00:00

"ENOUGH OF drinking our blood," one of the attackers who stormed the Armenian parliament on Wednesday told Vazgen Sarkissian. "Everything is being done for you and the future of your children," the prime minister is said to have responded calmly before the gunman opened fire.

"ENOUGH OF drinking our blood," one of the attackers who stormed the Armenian parliament on Wednesday told Vazgen Sarkissian. "Everything is being done for you and the future of your children," the prime minister is said to have responded calmly before the gunman opened fire.

Sarkissian's last reported words highlight his difficult transition from Armenia's strongman responsible for ensuring the country's defence to prime minister with responsibility for the welfare of the entire population.

Only five months into the job, Sarkissian was trying to shake off his ruthless image acquired during the long years of the war with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and during the crackdown on internal dissent launched by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, in which Sarkissian played an enthusiastic role.

His rise to the top started when, as a former Communist Youth League organiser, he joined the growing movement for the mainly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh to be transferred from Azerbaijani to Armenian jurisdiction. He was elected to parliament in the 1990 elections, the first semi-free elections Armenia had held, where he became a member of the Internal Affairs and Defence Committee.

Between 1990 and 1992 he spent much time in Karabakh itself, commanding irregular troops in their fight against Soviet and Azerbaijani forces. From 1992 to 1993 he was defence minister, while from 1993 to 1995 he was state minister in charge of defence. In 1995, during the restructuring of government ministries, he once again became defence minister. In these various capacities he laid the groundwork for building Armenia's army.

He controlled the fledgling armed forces during the height of the fighting in Karabakh, in which Armenia's forces were heavily involved, despite official Armenian denials. Working closely with the army command in the Karabakh capital, Stepanakert, and with successive defence ministers Vazgen Manukian and Serj Sarkissian (no relation), he played a key role in the Karabakh forces' recapture of territory in Karabakh from Azerbaijani control and the successful seizure of large swathes of Azerbaijani territory around the enclave.

However, he had to wait until his appointment as defence minister in 1995 to gain full control over Armenia's armed forces.

A key part of his strategy was to maintain close ties with the Russian military, frequently travelling to Moscow to confer with his defence ministry counterparts. It was his close friendship with Russian defence minister Pavel Grachev that ensured the supply of millions of dollars of Russian military supplies "at no cost to the country", as he repeated with pride. He was happy for Russia to retain well-equipped military bases in Armenia.

Sarkissian was a soldiers' soldier, frequently visiting his troops and appearing more comfortable in combat fatigues than in a suit. Yet he failed to stamp out the ruthless brutality within the armed forces, with victimisation of new recruits, the transfer of soldiers against their will to the frontline in Karabakh and widespread extortion by senior officers.

He also controlled his own private army of Karabakh veterans, the Yerkrapah (Defenders of the Homeland). After the 1994 Karabakh ceasefire he unleashed them on people he disliked within Armenia. In April 1995 he appeared on television to ask people to inform the authorities of the whereabouts of "sectarians". The following month a coordinated series of raids saw Protestant, Hare Krishna and Bahai meeting places attacked and many believers beaten.

Sarkissian told a Yerkrapah congress the following December that they had saved the country from the "plague of religious sects". In 1995 Yerkrapah members trashed a human rights library in the town of Vanadzor, a further reflection of Sarkissian's contempt for pluralism and democracy.

But his controversial reputation mainly hinged on his role as enforcer for Ter-Petrosian. As the president became increasingly isolated in society, Sarkissian and several other hardline colleagues provided the muscle to keep him in power and crack down on the opposition.

As the opposition seemed poised to win the parliamentary elections in 1995, Sarkissian is believed to have played a decisive role planning the counterattack, organising intimidation of the opposition and ballot-rigging. Presidential elections the following year were equally controversial. When official results gave Ter-Petrosian a narrow victory, tanks were sent onto the streets of Yerevan to quell opposition protests. Again, Sarkissian led the counter-attack.

As Ter-Petrosian became increasingly unpopular, the Yerkrapah parliamentary faction loyal to Sarkissian built up its strength. At the end of 1997, as Ter-Petrosian planned to make concessions to Azerbaijan over Karabakh, Sarkissian and a number of key colleagues, including the prime minister, Robert Kocharian, jumped ship. Ter-Petrosian was forced to resign in February 1998.

Sarkissian initially backed Kocharian, the winner of the presidential poll, but gradually fell out with him, choosing instead to back the re-emerged Communist-era politician Karen Demirchian. Sarkissian's newly constituted Republican Party teamed up with Demirchian in the Miasnutyun (Unity) Alliance to contest the May 1999 parliamentary elections, winning the majority of seats. Kocharian was forced to bow to the inevitable and nominated Sarkissian as independent Armenia's seventh prime minister in June.

The ambitious Sarkissian had come a long way since his childhood in the small town of Ararat, just a few miles from the borders with Turkey and Iran.

He graduated from Yerevan State Institute of Physical Education in 1979 before working as a physical instruction teacher in the Ararat village school. From 1983 to 1986 he was the Communist Youth League leader at the cement factory in Ararat.

An amateur, though by all accounts not very inspired poet, Sarkissian then moved into literary life. From 1986 to 1989 he was head of the publicity department of the Garun ("Spring") literary monthly in Yerevan. But the national ferment of the late 1980s saw him abandon this role as he flung himself headlong into political life.

It is not clear how Sarkissian's government would have fared. Assessments of his brief period in office were mixed. Although he promised to root out corruption, many were sceptical. Sarkissian's family - his brother Armen in particular - were known to have grown rich through their rumoured control of imports of key commodities such as petrol, alcohol and tobacco.

On Karabakh, once the decisive issue in Armenian politics, Sarkissian was a hardliner, rejecting any compromise short of internationally recognised independence for the enclave. But the political agenda in Armenia has moved on, with many resentful of the large slice of the national budget swallowed up by a small province. Whether the authoritarian Sarkissian could have seriously tackled the continuing economic crisis remains unanswered.

"I'm married to the homeland," Sarkisyan would tell people who asked why he had never married or had children. It was this utter conviction that he knew what was best for Armenia that made him a politician some grudgingly respected, but few people liked.

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