By Sergei L. Loiko
12:07 PM PST, February 1, 2013
MOSCOW -- An Armenian presidential candidate was wounded in a shooting attack Thursday night that disrupted campaigning in the former Soviet republic less than three weeks before the election.
Paruyr Hayrikyan of the moderate opposition National Self-Determination Union party was about to enter his house in Yerevan, the capital, about midnight when a stranger approached him from behind, a party spokesman said. The 63-year-old politician was fired at twice as he turned to face his attacker.
"One bullet went wide and the other bullet went through [Hayrikyan's] chest and stuck in his shoulder without touching any vital organs," Karo Egnukyan, the spokesman, said in a telephone interview Friday. "We rule out all other motives except somebody's malicious desire to disrupt the democratic electoral process in the country."
Hayrikyan underwent surgery Friday morning and was recovering after the bullet was extracted from his shoulder, Engukyan said.
"A thorough investigation is being conducted," Armenia's police chief, Vladimir Gasparyan, said to Interfax on Friday amid reports that authorities had a suspect or suspects in mind. "Let's draw conclusions later."
Although polls and analysts have suggested that Hayrikyan is not among the three top contenders in the presidential race, he is widely viewed as a well-respected politician. He spent over five years in Soviet prisons for his dissident activities, went into exile in the late 1980s and lived for a time in the United States before returned to Armenia after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
"Who else but some marginal political outsider would want to try to kill the symbol of Armenian independence, the man who stood at the roots of a new Armenia emerging?" Hrant Melik-Shakhnazaryan, head of the Center for Strategic Studies, a Yerevan-based think tank, said in an interview by telephone. "These forces behind the attack obviously want the presidential election to be postponed and the authorities' image marred."
The presidential elections can be delayed by two weeks if a candidate is impeded from conducting his campaign, the analyst said. Egnukyan said the party not yet decided if it should request a postponement.
President Serzh Sargsyan of the ruling Republican Party is seen as the front-runner in the race. The two candidates trailing him most closely in in the polls are former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian of the Heritage Party and ex-Prime Minister Hrant Bagratyan of the Freedom Party.
The differences between the political platforms of the candidates are not as pronounced as they were during the 2008 campaign, when supporters of then-candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian clashed with the police and their opponents in violence after the vote that left 10 people dead and dozens injured and arrested.
Hovannisian calls for immediate recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh, a troubled enclave that is controlled by Armenia but surrounded by and widely considered internationally to be part of Azerbaijan. Sargsyan, who is popular for reforms in recent years that granted more freedom to political parties and promoted freedom of speech, doesn't insist on the immediate recognition of the enclave's independence. He argues that this step could hurt the government’s ongoing political dialogue with Azerbaijan.
Bagratyan's campaign has focused on the economy.
Armenia, with its population of over 3.2 million, is Russia’s staunchest ally in Caucasus, where Georgia has had no diplomatic relations with Russia since the 2008 armed conflict between the two countries and Azerbaijan is suspicious of Moscow for its close ties with Armenia.
Russia still has a major military base in Armenia, its last in the region.
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