YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—Suren Khachatrian, the controversial governor of Armenia’s southeastern Syunik province, officially stepped down on Thursday amid the continuing fallout from a deadly shootout that occurred near his house on June 1.
Khachatrian tendered his resignation ahead of a weekly meeting of Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian’s government held in the morning. The cabinet swiftly accepted it.
“Any questions?” Sarkisian asked ministers. “None. The decision is adopted.”
Neither the premier nor Deputy Minister for Local Government Vache Terterian, who submitted the resignation letter, commented on the reasons for the long-serving governor’s move.
But Eduard Sharmazanov, the spokesman for the ruling Republican Party of Armenia, said the resignation was the result of the Republican Party’s “political evaluation” of the bloody incident. “The fact that the government accepted the resignation means the political majority and the authorities believe that the reasons for dismissal contained in that letter are objective,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Khachatrian announced earlier that he is resigning only “until the end of the investigation.” Armenia’s constitution and laws do not allow temporary resignations of state officials.
The issue was not on the agenda of the cabinet meeting publicized beforehand, suggesting that Khachatrian was forced to make the decision at the last minute, amid continuing media allegations that he had a hand in the killing of Avetik Budaghian, a Syunik businessman who had an uneasy rapport with the notoriously violent governor.
Budaghian was shot dead just outside Khachatrian’s villa in the provincial town of Goris in still unclear circumstances. His brother Artak Budaghian and one of the governor’s bodyguards were seriously wounded in the incident. One of Khachatrian’s sons and another bodyguard are now under arrest, charged with murder and illegal arms possession.
Khachatrian insists that he slept in his bedroom during the incident and had no part in the shootings. Law-enforcement authorities investigating the killing have essentially backed this claim.
Many Armenians critical of the government think otherwise, however, pointing to Khachatrian’s long history of violent conduct. Dozens of civic and opposition activists demonstrated outside the prime minister’s office in Yerevan during Thursday’s cabinet meeting. They demanded that the authorities prosecute Khachatrian as well to end what they see an atmosphere of impunity enjoyed by influential government allies.
“Even if he didn’t do that personally, his sons and security guards did that with his permission,” one of the activists, Davit Sanasarian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “He is the one who created that atmosphere.”
In a move clearly initiated by Khachatrian, unnamed employees of Syunik’s provincial administration issued a statement in support of their boss late on Wednesday. They said video of the incident captured by security cameras and purportedly watched by them proves that the governor was not involved in the shootings.
The footage was confiscated by the police hours after the incident, raising questions how and when the Syunik officials gained access to it. Besides, Armenian law forbids any unauthorized publication of materials of a pending criminal case.
Gevorg Kostanian, Armenia’s chief military prosecutor overseeing the ongoing inquiry, criticized the Syunik administration statement but said it did not violate the law because the video could have theoretically been watched by other individuals before its confiscation. “Therefore we cannot regard that as a disclosure of evidence or other data obtained during the investigation,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“Nevertheless, I consider unacceptable and incorrect the publication by a state body of information not related to its responsibilities,” added Kostanian.