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History, Renewed Independence

secessionist movement, ultranationalist, parliamentary elections, PNM, legislative elections

In the mid-1980s Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced glasnost (Russian for “openness”), a reformist policy that allowed controversial issues to be discussed publicly for the first time in Soviet history. Armenians initially took advantage of glasnost to demonstrate against the environmental problems in their republic. Historical and political grievances then became the focus of public unrest. In February 1988 crowds of as many as one million people took to the streets in Yerevan to rally for Armenia’s annexation of the Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where the predominantly Armenian population had already begun a secessionist movement.

In December 1988 northern Armenia was devastated by an earthquake that killed 25,000 people and left more than 400,000 homeless. Government relief efforts were slow and badly organized. The arrival of essential supplies such as fuel was delayed by an economic blockade Azerbaijan had imposed on Armenia in 1989 because of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. The war also hindered efforts to reconstruct Armenia’s earthquake-damaged infrastructure.

Toward the end of 1989 the Armenian Supreme Soviet (legislature) declared Nagorno-Karabakh to be part of Armenia. The Soviet authorities did not support the declaration, ruling it was unconstitutional. In September 1991 Armenian residents voted overwhelmingly to secede from the USSR, and the Armenian Supreme Soviet declared Armenia’s independence. The following month Levon Ter-Petrossian, head of the Pan-Armenian National Movement and former chairman of the Armenian Supreme Soviet, became the first popularly elected president of an independent Armenia. The USSR officially ceased to exist in December.

Economic conditions in Armenia deteriorated rapidly in 1992. Azerbaijan’s economic blockade of Armenia, which closed both a railway link and a fuel pipeline, caused severe food and energy shortages throughout Armenia. Ethnic-based conflicts raging in Georgia also impeded delivery of urgently needed supplies to Armenia. Meanwhile, Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh and other parts of Azerbaijan flooded into Armenia, further straining the economy. In massive demonstrations in Yerevan in 1992 and 1993, Armenians protested the continuing energy crisis and demanded Ter-Petrossian’s resignation.

In 1993 Armenian forces defeated the Azerbaijani army in several confrontations in Nagorno-Karabakh, which led to Armenian control of the region and of adjacent areas by August of that year. Although initial cease-fire agreements failed to hold, a new cease-fire agreement was reached in May 1994 after protracted mediation by Russia and the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

In July 1994 the political opposition to Armenia’s ruling party, the Pan-Armenian National Movement, staged antigovernment demonstrations in Yerevan. Foremost among the opposition was the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the same party that had established an independent Armenian state in 1918. The ARF strongly supported the Armenian secessionists in Nagorno-Karabakh, whereas the PNM maintained a somewhat distanced stance toward the secessionists. The ARF also rejected government efforts to introduce market reforms in the economy and opposed PNM-supported proposals for a new constitution that envisaged broadened powers for the president. In December 1994 the PNM-led government suspended the ARF, accusing the party of terrorism and other illegal activities.

In July 1995 Armenia held its first legislative elections as an independent country. The Republican bloc, a coalition led by the PNM, won a decisive victory to claim the majority of seats. The elections were monitored for fairness by the OSCE but were criticized by a number of opposition parties, which had been barred from participating. In a referendum held at the same time as the parliamentary elections, voters approved Armenia’s first post-Soviet constitution, which granted the president wide-ranging powers. In the presidential election of September 1996, Ter-Petrossian was reelected to a second term amid widespread allegations of vote fraud. Popular protests against the election results escalated into violent clashes with police, followed by a crackdown on the political opposition.

In March 1997 Ter-Petrossian appointed the elected president of Nagorno-Karabakh, Robert Kocharian, as prime minister of Armenia. Kocharian was a supporter of Nagorno-Karabakh’s ultimate secession from Azerbaijan. Ter-Petrossian announced, however, that he was prepared to accept a compromise solution proposed by the international community, which would have left Nagorno-Karabakh formally within Azerbaijan but granted de facto control to the local Armenians. Ter-Petrossian was forced to resign in February 1998 by hard-line supporters of Nagorno-Karabakh’s secession. One month later, Kocharian was elected to succeed Ter-Petrossian. The status of Nagorno-Karabakh remained unresolved as of early 2000. Meanwhile, the cease-fire agreement of May 1994 continued to be maintained.

In October 1999 five gunmen opened fire on a session of the parliament, killing Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, parliamentary speaker Karen Demirchian, and six other top officials. The gunmen, who took dozens of hostages, surrendered the next day after Kocharian guaranteed the assailants that they would receive a fair trial and permitted them to broadcast a statement on national television. The gunmen's leader, an ultranationalist named Nairi Unanian, defended the attack as a patriotic action and accused the government of following ruinous economic and political policies.

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