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The politically charged trial of the defendants in the October 1999 shootings of several senior government officials in parliament finally got under way in early 2001. Despite widespread speculation as to whether the gunmen had acted on the orders of others, including President Robert Kocharian, and attempts by the political opposition to remove him from office, the president continued to consolidate his power throughout the year. The ailing economy showed few signs of recovery, while a final settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remained elusive.
The landlocked, predominantly Christian Transcaucasus republic of Armenia was ruled at various times by Macedonians, Romans, Persians, Mongols, Turks, and others. Following a brief period of independence from 1918 to 1920, the Russian region became a Soviet republic in 1922, while western Armenia was returned to Turkey. Armenia declared its independence from the Soviet Union in September 1991.
Prior to the 1995 parliamentary elections, nine political parties were banned, thereby ensuring the dominance of Levon Ter Petrosian's ruling Armenian National Movement's (ANM) coalition. In the 1996 presidential election, Petrosian defeated former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian, who ran on a pro-market, anticorruption platform. In February 1998, Petrosian resigned following mass defections from the ANM and the resignation of key officials in protest against his gradualist approach in negotiations over control of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. Prime Minister Robert Kocharian, who was appointed by Petrosian in 1997 and formerly served as president of Nagorno-Karabakh, was elected president in March with the support of the previously banned Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun.
Parliamentary elections in May 1999 resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Unity bloc, a new alliance of Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian's Republican Party and former Soviet Armenian leader Karen Demirchian's People's Party, which campaigned on a populist platform of greater state involvement in the economy and increased social spending. In June, Sarkisian was named prime minister while Demirchian became speaker of parliament. The relationship between the politically influential Sarkisian and Demirchian on the one hand, and the relatively weaker Kocharian on the other, was marked by power struggles and policy differences.
Just five months after the parliamentary elections, the country was plunged into a political crisis when five gunmen stormed the parliament building on October 27 and assassinated Sarkisian, Demirchian, and several other senior government officials. On November 3, Kocharian appointed Aram Sarkisian, Vazgen Sarkisian's younger brother, as the new prime minister. By selecting the relatively unknown and inexperienced Aram Sarkisian, Kocharian hoped to assert greater political control while still maintaining some support from the pro-Vazgen Sarkisian parliament. However Aram Sarkisian soon proved to be a strong opponent of Kocharian's policies, and a period of growing tensions between the president and the prime minister ensued.
During the first few months following the parliamentary shootings, investigators alleged that several members of Kocharian's inner circle may have been behind the attacks. These accusations, as well as a claim by Chief Prosecutor Gagik Jahangirian that the killings were part of a coup d'etat, prompted some opposition figures to call for Kocharian's resignation. However, Kocharian gradually consolidated his power throughout the year to emerge as the most powerful figure in the country's leadership. On May 2, Kocharian dismissed Prime Minister Sarkisian and Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian, whom he accused of engaging in political intrigues at the expense of addressing the country's economic problems. The decision to form a new government, in which the Unity bloc agreed to cooperate with Kocharian, was generally regarded as a tactical victory for the president. Republican Party leader Andranik Margarian was named the new prime minister, while presidential advisor Serge Sarkisian, who had been an early suspect in connection with the October shootings, was appointed to the important post of defense minister.
After more than a year of investigations, the trial of the five gunmen, plus eight others charged with complicity in the 1999 parliamentary attacks, began in February 2001. Although Kocharian had effectively been cleared of any connection with the killings the previous year, many in the country maintained that the gunmen had not acted alone, while speculating about the identities of the instigators of the shootings. A final verdict in the trial had not been reached at year's end.
As Kocharian's authority continued to grow, the increasingly fractured political opposition made several efforts to unseat him from power. In early September, three opposition parties failed in an attempt to impeach the president, whom they accused of sabotaging the inquiry into the 1999 parliament shootings, violating the constitution, and creating a political and economic crisis in the country. On two occasions in late September and October, thousands of people in Yerevan attended rallies organized by the recently formed Republic Party led by Aram Sarkisian, former prime minister and member of the Unity bloc's Republican Party. While the protestors demanded Kocharian's resignation, the president announced that he would remain in office and seek another term in 2003.
In the foreign policy sphere, Armenia pledged its support for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and formally granted overflight permission to U.S. aircraft in the campaign the day after Washington began air strikes against the Taliban in early October. Despite a number of internationally led high-level meetings between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leadership, little progress was made during the year to reach a breakthrough on the long-standing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Throughout 2001, the economy continued to stagnate, with real unemployment at nearly 30 percent and more than half the population estimated to be living below the poverty line. In June, parliament approved a plan to privatize the country's remaining state-owned enterprises, including 40 percent within the following 12 months. At the same time, repeated attempts to privatize the national energy distribution network were delayed by reasons including domestic opposition to the sale of such strategic assets to foreign investors.
Armenians can change their government democratically, although the 1995 and 1999 parliamentary and 1996 presidential elections were characterized by serious irregularities. International observers reported some improvements regarding the 1999 parliamentary vote over previous elections, including the adoption of a new electoral code in February containing some recommendations by the international community, more balanced media coverage, and the return to the political arena of previously banned parties. However, they also cited serious problems with significant inaccuracies of voter lists, the presence of unauthorized persons in polling stations, and the lack of effective and impartial electoral commissions. The 1995 constitution provides for a weak legislature and a strong, directly elected president who appoints the prime minister. Most parties in Armenia are dominated by specific government officials or other powerful figures, suffer from significant internal dissent and division, or are weak and ineffective.
Self-censorship among journalists is common, particularly in reporting on Nagorno-Karabakh, national security, or corruption issues. While most newspapers are privately owned, the majority operate with limited resources and consequently are dependent on economic and political interest groups for their survival. A number of private television stations broadcast throughout the country, and most radio stations are privately owned.
Freedom of religion is somewhat respected in this overwhelmingly Christian country. The Armenian Apostolic Church, to which 90 percent of Armenians formally belong, has been granted official status as the national church and is not subject to certain restrictions imposed on other religious groups, including having to register with the State Council on Religious Affairs. Provisions in a law on religious organizations forbid proselytizing except by the Armenian Apostolic Church, and require religious organizations to have at least 200 members to register. The council continues to deny registration to Jehovah's Witnesses, who face persecution for refusing to serve in the military.
The government generally respects freedom of assembly and association, although the registration requirements are cumbersome and time consuming. While the constitution enshrines the right to form and join trade unions, in practice labor organizations are weak and relatively inactive.
The judiciary, which is subject to political pressure from the executive branch, is characterized by widespread violations of due process. Witnesses do not have the right to legal counsel while being questioned in police custody, and detainees may not file a complaint in court before trial regarding abuses suffered during criminal investigations. In a positive move, parliament adopted legislation in April 2001 reducing the amount of time that suspects may be detained by the authorities before being charged, and requiring that defendants be granted pretrial bail for crimes with penalties of less than three years in prison. Police frequently make arbitrary arrests without warrants, beat detainees during arrest and interrogation, and use torture to extract confessions.
While citizens have the right to own private property and establish businesses, an inefficient and often corrupt court system and unfair business competition hinder operations. Key industries remain in the hands of oligarchs and influential clans who received preferential treatment in the early stages of privatization. In June 2001, parliament passed anticorruption legislation that requires the disclosure of all income by officials of the executive and judicial branches. Domestic violence and trafficking in women and girls for the purpose of prostitution are believed to be serious problems.