The shooting of a presidential candidate threw Armenia's election into disarray Friday, with the wounded victim saying he will call for a delay of the vote.
Paruir Airikian, 63, was shot and wounded by an unidentified assailant outside his home in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, on Thursday just before midnight. Airikian said from the hospital after surgery Friday that he would initiate proceedings as allowed by the constitution to delay the vote for 15 days due to his condition, but not longer.
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 postponing the election 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."
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 in his car. Police found 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," Grigorian said.
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 six-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, has not commented 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.
"I have no intention to seek a 40-day delay as I realize that we are in a process that needs to be finalized," Airikian said in televised remarks from the hospital. "But I will have to choose the option of postponing the vote by 15 days."
Yerevan Clinical Hospital's chief doctor, Ara Minasian, said Airikian was being treated for a single gunshot wound and remained in stable condition. Doctors successfully 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 by the KGB 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.
On Friday, Airikian blamed ex-Soviet KGB agents of launching the attack.
"I would sincerely say that I see the style of special services of a foreign state, which haunted me for so long, not Russia, but its predecessor," Airikian said. He added that they could have been worried by his push for Armenia's closer integration into Europe.
Armenia has an economic and security pact with Russia and also hosts a Russian military base.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland condemned the shooting of Airikian, adding that Washington expects the Armenian government to ensure a fair vote in line with the law.
"If he's unable to campaign, we obviously call on Armenians to settle this constitutionally in a way that assures that these elections go forward in a way that is free and fair and protects the rights of all candidates," she said.
Bradley Klapper contributed to this report from Washington.