YEREVAN — 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.
Khachatrian is notorious for his violent conduct and was in the center of several major scandals connected with beatings and arbitrary behavior of his relatives or bodyguards. Khachatrian was also in a “war of words” with former opposition presidential candidate Raffi Hovannisian, who accused him of rigging the February vote in Syunik in favor of President Serzh Sarkisian.
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, confiscating large amounts of weapons and ammunitions.
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.
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.
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, 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.