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  Armenian Prime Minister Killed

By Avet Demourian
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, Oct. 27, 1999; 4:17 p.m. EDT

YEREVAN, Armenia –– Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, who was gunned down in the Armenian parliament on Wednesday, built his career as a hawkish defender of the nation and its right to the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The 40-year-old served as prime minister for only five months. Second highest in the government after President Robert Kocharian, Sarkisian struggled unsuccessfully to introduce reforms to get the nation's enfeebled economy moving again.

A stocky man with a closely cropped beard, Sarkisian was credited with creating Armenia's army after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

He served for close to a decade as chairman of the parliamentary defense and police committee, state minister for defense, and defense minister.

"I'm married to the homeland," he'd tell people who asked why he'd never married or had children.

Sarkisian was born in 1959 in the village of Ararat, just three miles from Soviet Armenia's border with Turkey. He graduated from the Yerevan Institute of Physical Culture, qualified to work as a soccer trainer, and taught physical education in schools until 1983.

He began his political career by becoming secretary of the Young Communists' chapter at the Ararat Concrete Factory, the biggest concrete plant in the Caucasus region. He served there until 1986, when joined the editorial board of the Garun (Spring) literary magazine.

Two years later, Sarkisian joined the nationalist movement aimed at wresting the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh from the control of the neighboring Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly ethnic Armenian zone located inside Azerbaijan, declared independence in 1988. After a prolonged war, Armenian forces drove Azerbaijani troops and civilians out.

In 1990-92, Sarkisian became commander of the Nagorno-Karabakh volunteers, sealing his reputation as the defender of the region. He stressed the need for a strong military defense even as international negotiators tried to cement a 1994 truce.

"Nobody wants peace more than we do," Sarkisian once said. "But I believe that being prepared for war is the best way to secure peace."

Despite the 1994 truce, occasional skirmishes have continued, and internationally brokered talks to end the conflict have stalled. The war killed 15,000 people and created about 1 million refugees.

Nagorno-Karabakh considers itself a sovereign state, but Azerbaijan views the territory as an integral part of the oil-rich country.

Sarkisian was serving as defense minister when President Kocharian appointed him in June to be prime minister. Kocharian had hoped the popular politician, whose Unity party had swept the recent parliamentary elections, could help heal the rift between the legislature and the government.

Sarkisian managed to push through only a handful of economic reform initiatives, including raising the excise taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. He was scheduled to present his three-year plan for economic recovery to the parliament in coming weeks.

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press

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