Bull’s-eye on the Armenian president’s back

I really did not want to write about how Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan has turned into a wanted man with a bull’s-eye on his back and has become a target for Armenian ultra-nationalists and zealots, fearing that it would give further credence to widespread talks and serve the interests of those who would very much like to see the normalization process with Armenia derailed.

Then came an e-mail warning from an analyst in Armenia, Richard Giragosian, the director of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS), detailing a threat issued by the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) against people who work for rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia. “We want to warn everyone — from the authorities to the local criminal leaders — that we will not give up our struggle for national dignity,” a statement attributed to ASALA read.

Let me remind those who have not heard of ASALA before. It is the notorious terrorist organization that killed Turkish diplomats serving in foreign missions, especially during an era from the mid ’70s to the mid ’80s. This terror network’s killing spree left 46 dead and 299 injured. The last time it acted was in 1991 when ASALA made an unsuccessful attempt on the life of the Turkish ambassador to Hungary. It brings back tragic memories to the minds of many Turks.

So now I feel like I should take the threat very seriously. Last week I chose to discount classified information shared by one European ambassador regarding how seriously the life of Armenian President Sarksyan is in danger. He told me the intelligence community in his country is very concerned that Sarksyan might be the target of an assassination attempt. “If that happens, it may be the end of this rapprochement effort,” he underlined. This Western diplomat urged haste in the normalization process with Armenia.

Last Sunday we published an interview with Armenian journalist Hakob Chaqrian, conducted by Ercan Yavuz, our veteran reporter from the Ankara office, on the sidelines of the soccer match held in Bursa. In that piece, Chaqrian, a former academic at the then-USSR Academy of Science, repeatedly made the point that the move may disturb some circles, urging caution on both sides. “Both leaders may become targets of fanatic nationalist groups; they have to be careful,” he said.

Frankly, Turkish President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who have co-chaired this new dynamic diplomacy amid growing public wrath and mounting criticism at home, are exposed to considerably less risk than President Sarksyan. If Erdoğan or Gül are to be targeted in an assassination attempt, it has more to do with the Ergenekon trial — a case investigating a clandestine group of radicals who plotted to overthrow the government by going on a killing spree that was to include Gül and Erdoğan.

The government initiative on the Armenian front has potentially less impact on these leaders than the Kurdish initiative to solve 25-year-old conflict in southeastern Turkey. The normalization with Turkey, the so-called archenemy of Armenia for almost a century, bears more risk to the life of President Sarksyan. I do hope it will never come to that and security agents and intelligence operatives in the region will keep their eyes and ears open.

If it is any indication, the violent protests against Sarksyan, especially in Paris, when he embarked on a worldwide trip earlier this month to seek support from Armenian expatriates living in the United States, France, Russia and Lebanon, have proved there is a growing hatred and antagonism towards the current Armenian administration. Riot police were called in to break up belligerent demonstrators in Paris; some of them were punching riot gear, clashing with the police who had to take them away kicking and screaming.

Sarksyan has now been portrayed as “the person” who betrayed the century-long Armenian cause with his engagement with Turkey and has become a target for hard-core radicals both in and outside of Armenia. The US and Russia with vast intelligence assets in and around the region should do everything in their power to foil any plot targeting Sarksyan.

I still have vivid memories of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995 by right-wing Israeli radical Yigal Amir, who was staunchly opposed to Rabin’s signing of the Oslo Accords with Palestinians. Therefore, players who have a great stake in this rapprochement should watch out and hope beefed-up security around Sarksyan will prevent any assassination attempt on his life.

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