By Ruzanna Stepanian
Law-enforcement authorities in a small town near Yerevan said on Tuesday that they are still investigating a shock murder reportedly committed by its mayor ahead of a local election scheduled for October 9.
The mayor of Nor Hajn, Armen Keshishian, was arrested on Saturday moments after a bitter argument with a local businessman who was shot dead in broad daylight as a result. The victim, Ashot Mkhitarian, managed the local branch of Armenia’s electricity grid. He actively supported Keshishian’s election challenger.
A senior regional prosecutor, Mikael Grigorian, told RFE/RL that Keshishian has already been formally charged under an article of the Armenian Criminal Code that deals with “premeditated murders committed in a way that endangered many peoples’ lives.” He said the criminal investigation into the killing is still going on as there are “certain issues that need to be clarified.” He would not say if Keshishian pleaded guilty to the accusation that carries a lengthy prison sentences.
The deputy chief of the Nor Hajn police, Karen Vartanian, confirmed that the fatal shooting was sparked by the construction of a playground for children which Mkhitarian began without the mayor’s mandatory permission. He confirmed that Keshishian was accompanied by two police officers when he arrived at the construction site and began arguing with Mkhitarian.
Vartanian said the policemen were “15-20 meters” away from the two men when the shooting began and could not have prevented it. “Nor did they know that Keshishian had a pistol with him,” he added.
Residents of Nor Hajn, a town 15 kilometers north of Yerevan, say tensions between the two men were simmering for months and came to a head when Mkhitarian decided not to back the incumbent mayor’s reelection bid and throw his weight behind his challenger, Babken Markarian. The latter heads the local branch of the influential Yerkrapah Union of Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Markarian said he believes the upcoming election was a key reason for the deadly incident, suggesting that Keshishian feared the wealthy power grid executive could cost him reelection. “Both the elections and year-long tensions between them played a role,” he said. “This was definitely the case. Ashot Mkhitarian was supporting my candidacy and platform.”
“I was going to win in any case because I am not captivated by the mayor’s post,” claimed the candidate. “I only care about the town’s well being.”
The dead man was reportedly close to Gagik Tsarukian, one of Armenia’s richest “oligarchs” who holds sway in the central Kotayk region of which Nor Hajn is a part. The arrested mayor, for his part, was supported by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party during the previous election.