Strobe Talbott Returns to Armenia Meets Kocharian

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The United States has shown its support for the Armenian government’s efforts to maintain internal order and stability–sending today a top American envoy to Armenia’still reeling from the shock assassination of its prime minister and several other officials.

US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott suggested that the country’s leadership will manage to keep the situation from worsening in the wake of Wednesday’s assassinations in parliament of eight high-ranking officials and deputies. He said the unprecedented bloodbath will not derail the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process where signs of a breakthrough have emerged lately.

"There is no doubt in my mind that once again the forces of democracy–rule of law and humanity will prevail [in Armenia] over the forces that briefly and horribly were unleashed in the parliament the other day," Talbott told a news conference after talks with Kocharian.

"My colleagues and I were deeply impressed by [Koharian’s] strength and determination. I am also impressed by the resilience and strength of the Armenian people and state and the government," Talbott said.

Kocharian Friday took over the duties of prime minister pending the appointment of a new head of the cabinet–which officials say will come after the parliament elects a new leadership. Speaker Karen Demirchian and his two deputies were also killed by five gunmen who are currently kept in custody at the national security ministry. Kocharian and the deputies of the National Assembly today agreed to rapidly elect a new speaker after Sunday’s funeral of Demirchian and the slain Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan. One of the deputies told reporters the meeting focused on "how to work together in ensuring political stability."

Kocharian’s press service quoted him as describing the assault on the parliament as a "great blow to not only all of us but also the prestige of the country–and we will feel its consequence for a while." Leaders of the country’s main political parties have thrown their weight behind government efforts to restore normalcy.

Talbott said he was sent to Yerevan by President Clinton to express America’s "deepest sense of shock–horror–outrage and support for Armenia." This was the US official’s second visit to Armenia within a week. He was in the Armenian capital on Wednesday to discuss the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and left it less than two hours before the shooting in the parliament building began.

The US has been pushing for an Armenian-Azeri agreement on the main principles of the Karabakh settlement in time for next month’s summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Prospects for peace have improved considerably following the recent series of direct talks between President Kocharian and his Azeri counterpart Haydar Aliyev.

"I think that the search for peace in this region will continue. It is in the interests of everybody," Talbott argued. The US–Russia and France co-chair the OSCE’s Minsk Group on Karabakh. He added: "While the political leadership and people of Armenia gather their strength and recover from the devastating events of two days ago–the United States will be working with its partners in the Minsk Group –with Russia and France–the OSCE and the European Union in order to make sure that when the time is ripe the international community will be ready to support the peace process."

The Armenian gunmen who shot at government ministers and parliament deputies did not mention the Karabakh issue among the stated reasons for the assault. They said its primary target was premier Sargsyan whom they hold responsible for economic hardships suffered by Armenia’s since Collapse of the Soviet Union. The armed group was led by an obscure former journalist–Nairi Hounanian.

The assassinations of Sargsyan and Demirchian have caused a huge political vacuum in the Armenian leadership. The two charismatic men co-headed the Unity bloc which has the biggest faction in parliament. Armenia’s leading politicians claim that consultations about who should be their successors will not begin before Sunday’s funeral.

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