By Margarit Yesayan and Ruzanna Khachatrian
The National Democratic Union (AZhM), once largest opposition party in Armenia beset by internal splits, is again plunging into disarray as most pro-government members of its board attempt to unseat its leader, former prime minister Vazgen Manukian. The challengers, who earlier this year succeeded in squeezing opponents of cooperation with the authorities out of the party, are now seeking to abolish the post of AZhM chairman.
The party’s political council, which is larger and more powerful than the 11-member board, will convene for an emergency meeting on Saturday to discuss the crisis which may lead to another split in the AZhM. Manukian and his supporters hope to reassert their control of the party by sidelining the rebel leaders.
Manukian: more trouble on horizon
In a statement released at the weekend, Manukian said that the current board is unable to attain the party’s goal and that any of its meetings held in his absence will be considered “illegal.”
The revolt is staged by three AZhM members of the parliament who are thought to be encouraged by Minister for State Property David Vartanian. Unlike Manukian and many ordinary activists, they all stand for closer links with President Robert Kocharian and the government.
But the pro-government wing insists that it only wants to strengthen collective leadership of the AZhM in order to turn it into a more viable structure. “A party created around a single individual can not last for long,” one of its representatives, Seyran Avakian told reporters on Wednesday. “We should instead rally around ideas.”
“There are no ideological and political differences between the AZhM chairman and members of the board and the [parliament] faction,” Avakian claimed.
However, sources close to Manukian say the ex-premier, who was close to becoming Armenia’s president during the September 1996 elections, is convinced that his political beliefs is the main reason for the revolt. Manukian and his allies believe their opponents support the authorities out of their personal self-interest.
The question of what stance should the AZhM take on the current authorities was hotly debated at a prolonged party congress in February. Proponents of a firm opposition stand found themselves in minority and broke with the AZhM to set up two new parties. Manukian, who unsuccessfully tried to reconcile the two wings, chose to stay on.
Similar disputes were at the heart of major rifts in other leading Armenian parties. The People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK) has been hit by a wave of defections from its parliamentary faction over the past week. The defectors led by parliament speaker Armen Khachatrian are opposed to any confrontation with Kocharian. Earlier this year, a group of prominent politicians split from the governing Republican Party (HHK) to protest what they see as its growing subordination to the head of state.
Meanwhile, the leader of one of the two AZhM splinter groups, the National Democratic Party (AZhK), said on Wednesday the attempts to change the AZhM structure are directed personally against its chairman. “Vazgen Manukian is such a strong personality that nobody can compete with him [for leadership] at the party congress,” Shavarsh Kocharian told RFE/RL.
“I feel very sorry for [the revolt], but on the other hand, think that it is logical. The AZhM used to be a party of bright personalities. But it happened so that only mediocrities have remained on surface,” he said. “And they just can’t stand it when somebody next to them is bright.”