By Hrach Melkumian
The once powerful Yerkrapah Union of Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans is conspicuously avoiding taking sides in the Armenian presidential campaign despite its leadership’s previously expressed allegiance to President Robert Kocharian.
Yerkrapah leaders said over the weekend that the organization’s ruling board has not and will not urge its rank-and-file members to vote for any of the nine presidential candidates. “Yerkrapah is an apolitical structure and each of its members will vote by his own will,” a member of the board, Ara Ketikian, told RFE/RL.
Ketikian represents the Yerkrapah leadership’s minority wing which is affiliated with the opposition Hanrapetutyun (Republic) party and is strongly opposed to Kocharian. Most board members hold top positions in the Armenian military and are loyal to the current government. Their support was critical for Kocharian’s victory in a bitter power struggle in the Armenian leadership that followed the October 1999 parliamentary shootings.
Among the victims of the massacre was Vazgen Sarkisian, the then prime minister and Yerkrapah’s charismatic founder. Sarkisian is revered by thousands of war veterans. Ketikian and his allies still suspect Kocharian of masterminding his assassination. But other Yerkrapah leaders led by the organization’s chairman, General Manvel Grigorian, believe that the suspicion is unfounded.
Grigorian avoided Saturday any reference to the upcoming elections as he addressed a meeting of several hundred military officers and war veterans dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the creation of the Fifth Volunteer Brigade that had helped the Karabakh Armenians defeat Azerbaijani force. Grigorian, who is also a deputy defense minister, instead urged Yerkrapah members to close the ranks and ignore “shallow promises” given by unspecified politicians.
“Do not entrust your faith, your unity and your independence to anyone. You should primarily trust your comrades-in-arms,” the general said without elaborating.
Grigorian also described the unresolved Karabakh conflict as the chief challenge facing Armenia and said Yerkrapah should guarantee a firm Armenian stand on the issue. “If we don’t stick to our cause, others will hardly do that,” he noted vaguely.
Yerkrapah used to play a large role in Armenian politics. It was, for example, used by the authorities for enforcing official results of the disputed presidential election of September 1996. During the last presidential election held in 1998 many of its members actively campaigned for Kocharian at Sarkisian’s urging. The union has lost much of its political clout since Sarkisian’s murder.
Ordinary war veterans attending Saturday’s gathering appeared to support the Yerkrapah board’s reluctance to fall in behind Kocharian or any other presidential candidate. One of them, Suren Sahakian, said: “Freedom fighters have never meddled in politics. Their mission is to protect the homeland. So please don’t draw us into your dirty games.”
(RFE/RL photo: General Manvel Grigorian.)