Armenian Shootings May Provoke Political Crisis

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Proof, perhaps, that a nut or two can change the course of history, the gunmen who strafed the Armenian parliament on Wednesday — although they appear to have had no particular plan or manifesto — may have managed to trigger a political crisis. The Armenian military Thursday demanded the resignation of a number of senior ministers over the security lapse that allowed the four gunmen to kill the country's prime minister and seven other senior politicians. "The danger now is that what appears to have been simply an outburst of insanity could be turned into a serious political crisis," says TIME Moscow bureau chief Paul Quinn-Judge.

The gunmen were arrested early Thursday after being promised a fair trial, but despite a live TV broadcast by their leader, Nairi Unanian — described in early news reports as a disgruntled journalist — nobody’s any the wiser about what really motivated the attack. "We wanted to save the Armenian people from perishing and restore its rights," Unanian said, but he articulated no clear political agenda or complaint. Although Unanian was known for his nationalist views and hard line on Armenia’s conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan, so was Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, whom he shot at point-blank range. In the end, all the gunmen demanded were guarantees for their personal safety. But the military wants heads to roll in the cabinet, and that could put it on a collision course with the government.

Any political changes emerging from the shootings are cause for concern in America and, more particularly, in Russia. Armenia's strategic significance is underscored by the fact that U.S. undersecretary of state Strobe Talbott held five hours of talks with Sarkisian and President Robert Kocharian on the very day of the shootings, discussing the vexing question of Nagorno-Karabakh. The predominantly Armenian enclave inside neighboring Azerbaijan sparked a war between the two countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Talbott had been discussing a settlement to the unresolved conflict. Russia will be watching with interest because of the complex struggle for influence along the route of the pipeline pumping Caspian Sea oil to the West. Azerbaijan and Georgia's active support of the Chechens and preference for NATO makes a friendly regime in Yerevan that much more important to Moscow. But while the high stakes in Armenia's geopolitical stance may offer a context for Wednesday’s shootings, they offer no explanation.