The notoriously violent governor of Armenia’s southeastern Syunik province said on Monday that he is “temporarily” stepping down in connection with a weekend shootout outside his villa that left one of his local rivals dead and two other men injured.
Suren Khachatrian announced his decision following the arrest of his son Tigran and one of his bodyguards on suspicion of involvement in the late-night incident in Goris, a provincial town that has long been his de facto fiefdom.
The authorities in Yerevan, meanwhile, were in no rush to sack or prosecute Khachatrian despite renewed allegations by opposition and civic activists about impunity enjoyed by powerful government loyalists in Armenia.
Law-enforcement authorities gave few details of the shooting, saying only that it followed a bitter dispute involving Avetik Budaghian, a 43-year-old local businessman and his brother Artak, who is the commander of an Armenian army unit stationed in the area. Avetik died on the spot, while Artak and another man, who is apparently linked to the governor, were hospitalized with serious gunshot wounds.
Police units sent from Yerevan reportedly searched the houses of Khachatrian and his relatives shortly after the incidents.
In a statement, Armenia’s Office of the Prosecutor-General said investigators have confiscated “a large quantity of weapons” but did not elaborate. It also said that all individuals responsible for the deadly violence will be brought to justice “regardless of their positions.”
Khachatrian did not report for work and switched off his mobile on Monday. “I regret that I could not prevent the tragic incident that took place near my house,” he said in a statement posted on the website of Syunik’s provincial administration. “An objective inquiry should now answer all questions.”
“I have decided to give up my duties of governor until the end of the inquiry and have already received permission from my superior body,” he added.
The Armenian government’s press office insisted, however, that Khachatrian did not submit resignation letters to Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian or Local Government Minister Armen Gevorgian. Under Armenian law, the provincial governors are appointed and dismissed by the central government.
Some media reports claimed that Khachatrian sought a meeting with President Serzh Sarkisian but was snubbed by the latter. Sarkisian’s press secretary, Arman Saghatelian, did not confirm or refute those reports.
In Goris, meanwhile, relatives of the Budaghian brothers blamed Khachatrian for the shootings. “This was the result of lawlessness reigning in this town for more than 10 years,” one of them told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “At the heart of that lawlessness is the current governor of Syunik. I am convinced that he had a hand in this.”
The brothers have reportedly had a tense rapport with Khachatrian and his extended family. Avetik Budaghian, the slain businessman, challenged Goris Mayor Nelson Voskanian, a Khachatrian protégé, in the last local election held in 2010. Budaghian cried foul during that mayoral race.
“Please do not politicize what happened, it was an accidental phenomenon,” Voskanian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “I don’t know who is responsible for it. The guilty will be identified.”
The mayor also denied that Khachatrian’s practically unlimited influence on local affairs resulted in an atmosphere of fear. “The atmosphere in Goris is good,” he claimed.
Local residents approached by an RFE/RL correspondent were clearly too scared to comment on the shock killing, however. “People are not just scared, they shudder [with fear,]” said one middle-aged man. “Switch off your camera,” he said when asked to elaborate.
“Please don’t ask me questions,” said another, female resident of the picturesque town.
Khachatrian, who is better known in Armenia with his “Liska” nickname, has held sway in Goris and nearby villages ever since the early 1990s. Independent media outlets have long implicated him and his relatives in violent attacks on local business rivals as well as government critics, including a Syunik newspaper editor whose car was set on fire in 2005.
The controversial governor has always denied involvement in such incidents and denounced opposition politicians and pro-opposition media for branding him a crime figure.
Khachatrian, who is a senior member of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), risked dismissal in 2008 as he faced an embarrassing government inquiry into a newspaper report that accused him of beating up a teenage boy. He was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing.
Khachatrian, who was appointed as Syunik governor in 2004 by then President Robert Kocharian, managed to retain his position even after assaulting in a Yerevan hotel lobby in late 2011 a businesswoman who accused him of fraud. Although the incident was captured by a surveillance camera, law-enforcement bodies refused to bring criminal charges against him on the grounds that the woman did not suffer serious physical injuries.
Official results of Armenian elections held over the past decade have shown President Sarkisian and his HHK winning more votes in Syunik than in any other part of the country. Critics say this is the reason why the ruling party has never censured the governor until now.
Neither the HHK nor the presidential administration reacted to Khachatrian’s threats to “smash the head” of Raffi Hovannisian, Sarkisian’s main challenger in the February 2013 presidential election. The Armenian president, who repeatedly pledged to uphold justice during the presidential race, instead gave a major state award, the Order of Combat Cross, to the governor less than a month ago.
HHK representatives were cautious on Monday in reacting to the latest bloody incident linked to Khachatrian. “If he committed a crime, I think there will be an adequate punishment,” said Galust Sahakian, the party’s parliamentary leader. Sahakian stressed at the same time that that he still considers the notorious official’s track record to be “quite serious.”