YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — A midnight shooting attack on a presidential candidate threw Armenia's election into disarray Friday, raising the prospect that the vote could be postponed.
Paruir Airikian, 63, was shot and wounded by an unidentified assailant outside his home in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, just before midnight. He was recuperating Friday after surgery.
He is one of eight candidates in the Feb. 18 race in this landlocked former Soviet republic and wasn't expected to get more than 1 percent of the vote. But the attack might force authorities to delay the election, a move that could help opponents of President Serge Sarkisian, who was expected to easily win a second five-year term.
Sarkisian said after visiting Airikian in the hospital that the perpetrators of the attack "obviously had an intention to influence the normal election process."
The attack was "a provocation against democratic, free and transparent elections," said Eduard Sharmazanov, the deputy speaker of Parliament.
Armenia — a landlocked nation of 3 million people bordering Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Turkey in the volatile Caucasus — has been known for its turbulent and often violent politics. A 1999 attack on Parliament by six gunmen killed the prime minister, the speaker and six other officials and lawmakers.
In 2006, a deputy chief of tax police was blown up his car. Police tracked down the man who placed explosives in the vehicle, but failed to determine who ordered the killing.
In March 2008, clashes between police and supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, who lost to Sarkisian in a vote the previous month, left 10 people dead and more than 250 injured. Later that year, a deputy police chief was shot and killed in the elevator of his apartment building, a slaying that remains unsolved.
Sarkisian, a conservative, has stolen the opposition's thunder by talking with critics and allowing opposition protests. In 2009, the Parliament granted a sweeping amnesty to hundreds of people detained for taking part in the post-election violence.
Sarkisian also has overseen a return to economic growth after years of stagnation and has managed to reduce the country's endemic poverty. Recent opinion surveys show him getting the support of up to 70 percent of the population.
"Sarkisian has a clear advantage ... and he doesn't need destabilization," said Stepan Grigorian, an independent political analyst. He said Sarkisian is poised to win the vote anyway, but if he performs worse than initially expected, that could give more leverage to fringe groups. "That could make the president more dependent on such marginal groups," said Grigorian.
Sarkisian's closest rival is Raffi Hovanessian, a former foreign minister who has campaigned on populist promises to sharply increase state salaries and pensions. Hovanessian also has pledged to recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, a stance favored by nationalists. The Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and some adjacent territory have been under the control of Armenian troops and local ethnic Armenian forces since a 6-year war ended with a truce in 1994.
Armenia has faced severe economic challenges caused by the closing of its borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey because of the conflict and international efforts to mediate a settlement have produced no result. Sarkisian, like his predecessors, has stopped short of recognizing the territory as independent.
At the same time, he has taken a tough stance on other foreign policy issues, pushing strongly for international recognition that the killings of some 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 constituted genocide. Turkey has furiously opposed that.
Armenian Parliament Speaker Ovik Abramian, who visited the wounded candidate in the hospital, said Friday that the attack was a "blow to the Armenian statehood" and that the election could now be delayed. The nation's election chief, however, refused to comment on the possibility.
Armenia's constitution requires the vote to be postponed for two weeks, if one of the candidates is unable to take part due to circumstances beyond his control. A further 40-day delay beyond that is also possible.
Sarkisian, meanwhile, canceled a meeting with voters set for Friday, and his headquarters said his campaign ads wouldn't be broadcast that day.
Yerevan Clinical Hospital's chief doctor, Ara Minasian, said Airikian was being treated for a single gunshot wound and remained in stable condition. Doctors operated to remove a bullet in his shoulder.
Airikian, an also-ran in three previous Armenian presidential elections, was a dissident during Soviet times. He was first arrested when he was 20, and spent 17 years in prison, according to his party.
In 1987, after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev launched his liberal reforms, Airikian created the National Self-Determination Party. When the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan erupted the next year, he accused the Soviet authorities of stirring up violence and was evicted from the country.
Airikian soon returned to his homeland and in the 1990s had senior positions in Armenia's parliament and government.