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By Ruben Meloyan and Emil Danielyan
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian died of apparent cardiac failure on Sunday after nearly seven years at the helm of Armenia’s government.

President Robert Kocharian was due to hold an emergency meeting of top government officials to discuss the development that might have important ramifications for the upcoming parliamentary elections.

In a brief statement, the Armenian government cited “heart paralysis” as the cause of Markarian’s death, while a senior medic spoke of an “acute heart failure.” According to the head of Yerevan’s municipal ambulance service, Artem Petrosian, the 55-year-old chairman of the governing Republican Party (HHK) was unconscious and his heart stopped beating by the time two ambulance crews arrived at his apartment early in the afternoon.

“They immediately registered a heart stoppage and clinical death,” Petrosian told RFE/RL. Markarian was immediately given resuscitation treatment but did not respond, the official said, adding that the precise cause of his death will be determined by pathologists.

Markarian had a history of serious cardiac problems and twice underwent heart surgeries, first in Armenia in 1999 and later in France. He regularly visited French and Russian clinics for medical examinations.

“For us, for the country, the party and his friends, this is a huge loss,” Tigran Torosian, the parliament speaker and a senior member of the HHK, told the A1Plus.am news service. Torosian credited the deceased premier with the HHK’s success and “achievements” registered by Armenia in recent years.

Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, the number two figure in the official HHK hierarchy, was in Moscow on his way to China for an official visit when he heard news of Markarian’s sudden death. He reportedly cancelled the trip and was due to fly back to Yerevan.

In the meantime, Kocharian promptly expressed “deep sorrow” and offered his condolences to Markarian’s family. He also formed a special commission headed by Torosian and tasked with organizing Markarian’s state funeral. “The state commission today held its first meeting,” Kocharian’s office said in a press release.

In a separate short statement, the presidential press service said Kocharian has called an “emergency meeting of country’s high-ranking leadership.” No details were reported.

The HHK’s governing board was expected to meet separately later in the day. According to Torosian, the meeting will take place after Sarkisian’s return to Yerevan. Dozens of senior Republicans, some of them in tears, were waiting for the powerful defense chief at the party headquarters in the city center in the evening.

A computer engineer by training, Markarian began his political activities in the early 1970s when he joined a clandestine group campaigning for Armenia’s secession from the Soviet Union and spent two years in Soviet labor camps as a political prisoner. He was among several members of that group who founded the HHK in 1989.

Markarian was appointed prime minister in May 2000 after effectively switching sides in a bitter power struggle that was sparked by the October 1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament and ended in Kocharian’s and Sarkisian’s victory. He held on to the post in the shadow of Armenia’s two most powerful men, rarely defying them on major policy issues and essentially putting the HHK at their disposal.

Markarian was widely expected to resign as prime minister after the May 12 parliamentary elections which the HHK intends to win. Local observers have suggested that Sarkisian, increasingly seen as the HHK’s real top leader, is keen to take up the post and use it as a launch pad for the Armenian presidency. The question now is whether Sarkisian is willing to get the position before the vote. It is also unclear whether he is Kocharian’s preferred candidate for the job.

Speaking to journalists last January, Markarian, who became Armenia’s longest-serving prime minister, effectively admitted that he will no longer head the cabinet of ministers after May 12. When asked by one of them whether he is “psychologically” prepared to lose the job soon, he said: “I think romantically but am a pragmatist.”

Meanwhile, official Yerevan began receiving the first messages of condolences from foreign leaders. Citing Kremlin officials, the Regnum news agency reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin conveyed his sympathy to Markarian’s relatives, Armenia’s leadership and Kocharian in particular.

The U.S. chargé d’affaires in Yerevan, Anthony Godfrey, issued a statement on the occasion, describing Markarian as a “valuable partner of the United States.” “We honor Prime Minister Markarian's lifelong contributions to Armenian life, from his work with the dissident National Unity Party during the 1960s and 1970s, through independent Armenia's emergence from Soviet rule, and as the head of government since 2000,” Godfrey said.

(Photolur photo)
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