In July 1990, elections were won by the Armenian National Movement which had developed from the Karabagh Committee. Its leader, Levon Ter-Petrossian, became president of the Armenian Supreme Soviet which declared independence from the Soviet Union in August. (This was quite legal as, under the Soviet constitution, all republics were nominally free to secede.) The new government took a moderate line over the Nagorno Karabagh dispute and tried to distance itself from the fighting. The collapse of the Soviet Union in August 1991, following the failed putsch against Gorbachev, was followed by a referendum on 21 September in which the population of Armenia overwhelmingly voted in favour of independence. Meanwhile Azerbaijan likewise declared itself independent. However, after Armenia signed a mutual assistance treaty with Russia and certain other members of the Confederation of Independent States (CIS) in May 1992, Russia started supplying arms to Armenia which was able to drive Azerbaijan out of most of Nagorno Karabagh, the area between Armenia and Nagorno Karabagh, as well as border areas with Iran. After the death of around 25,000 combatants a ceasefire was declared in 1994 and largely holds firm at the time of writing. During the conflict the closure of the Turkish and Azerbaijan borders together with frequent sabotage of the gas pipelines in southern Georgia (used to supply gas to Armenia) resulted in Armenia becoming heavily dependent on Iran for supplies. It might now be possible to resolve the dispute if Armenia were willing to give up the southernmost part of its territory bordering Iran in exchange for Nagorno Karabagh, but the Armenian government's understandable wish to retain this direct link with Iran makes any short-term settlement of the dispute unlikely. Meanwhile Azerbaijan apparently hopes that Russia will lose interest in the area and cease supporting Armenia.
Armenia adopted a new presidential constitution in 1995 and in September 1996 Ter-Petrossian was re-elected president. Ter-Petrossian appointed Robert Kocharian, a former leader of Nagorno Karabagh, as prime minister and he was elected president in turn when Ter-Petrossian resigned in 1998. Parliamentary elections in May 1999 brought the opposition Unity Alliance to power with Vagen Sarkisian of the nationalist Republican Party (HHK) as prime minister and Karen Demirchian (loser of the presidential election) as speaker but on 27 October 1999 both of them, along with six others, were assassinated when gunmen stormed into parliament. The trial of the killers in late 2001 has not clarified the motives behind the attack. On 22 March 2000, Arkady Gukasian, the president of the self-declared Republic of Nagorno Karabagh, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt for which the former defence minister Samuel Babayan was jailed for 14 years.
A bitter struggle for power within the Armenian government led to some senior ministers being ousted and by mid 2001 the People's Party of Armenia (HZhK, led by Stepan Demirchian, son of the assassinated speaker) was becoming unhappy with its role as junior partner in the ruling coalition. Some of its members joined communists and the Hanrapetutian (Republic) party of former prime minister Aram Sarkisian (the assassinated prime minister's brother) in blocking an important bill on civil service reform. In August 2001, Kocharian proposed controversial changes to the constitution while the opposition predictably called on him to resign. In September 2001, HZhK left the coalition and joined the opposition in calling for Kocharian's impeachment on charges of violating the constitution, condoning terrorism, and causing a political and economic crisis. A further scandal blew up that month when an Armenian resident of Georgia, a member of the pro-Kocharian Dashnak Party, was beaten to death in the gentlemen's toilet of Yerevan's Aragast jazz club by members of Kocharians bodyguard. The president had just left the club and the bodyguard apparently objected to anti-Kocharian remarks which they had heard him making. Ihe following month around 25,000 joined anti-Kocharian demonstrations and 400,000 signed a petition demanding his resignation. A conspicuous feature of the subsequent trial of one of the bodyguards on the fairly minor charge of involuntary manslaughter was the unwillingness of any of the several dozen people who had witnessed the events to come forward and testify, apparently because of fear of what might happen to them at the hands of the police.
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