By Astghik Bedevian
The mayor of a small town near Yerevan was arrested over the weekend after reportedly shooting and killing a local businessman in a dispute apparently linked to an upcoming local election.
An aide to the regional prosecutor told RFE/RL that the shooting occurred in Nor Hajn on Saturday morning while Mayor Armen Keshishian was attempting to stop “illegal construction” financed by the victim, Armen Mkhitarian. The official said Mkhitarian, who runs the local branch of Armenia’s national electricity utility, quarreled and exchanged bitter insults with Keshishian before being gunned down.
According to local residents, Mkhitarian was building a playground for children without Keshishian’s permission -- a fact which allegedly infuriated the latter. Witnesses say the mayor arrived at the construction site with two police officers. It is not clear why they failed to prevent the gunshots.
The incident took place just two weeks before the election of Nor Hajn’s mayor. Keshishian, who is seeking reelection, is challenged by a single candidate who was reportedly backed by the murdered man. Mkhitarian was known to the locals as a figure close to one of Armenia’s most powerful “oligarchs,” Gagik Tsarukian. The arrested mayor, for his part, has been backed until now by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party.
Under Armenian law, criminal suspects can contest any election even if they are under arrest. The head of the local election commission, Gnel Ghalumian, said Keshishian’s name will therefore remain on ballots to be cast by Nor Hajn voters on October 9.
The Nor Hajn shooting is the most serious and extraordinary of the incidents reported in the ongoing local election campaigns across Armenia so far. The elections, effectively boycotted by the Armenian opposition, are largely apolitical, with government-connected business clans vying for power and zones of economic influence in most urban communities. A leading member of the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) warned last February that failure to ensure the freedom and fairness of the polls could lead to armed clashed between them.