By Armen Zakarian
The Yerkrapah Union of veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, the once powerful group linked to the Armenian military, faced a serious split on Thursday as hundreds of its disgruntled members left it to join a rival organization.
More than 300 veterans led by a vocal opponent of President Robert Kocharian gathered in Yerevan’s Malatia-Sebastia district to unveil the splinter called the Test of Spirit. The presumptuous name was borrowed from the title of a book authored by Vazgen Sarkisian, Yerkrapah’s founder and Armenia’s former prime minister assassinated in 1999.
The new organization is led by several close associates of Sarkisian who are unhappy with the current Yerkrapah leadership’s unwavering support for the Kocharian administration. Among them is Albert Bazeyan, the chairman of Armenia’s most radical opposition party, and Hakob Hakobian, the hitherto head of Yerkrapah’s Yerevan chapter.
Bazeyan, Hakobian and their allies say Yerkrapah has become a tool in the hands of the Armenian authorities and neglects the needs of thousands of war veterans mired in poverty.
“We must at least stand for ourselves and our comrades. We must create an organization that serves our interests,” said Hovsep Hovsepian, a French-born retired army colonel and a prominent field commander during the Karabakh war.
“I want this new organization to stay away from political games and interests,” Bazeyan declared for his part.
However, Bazeyan went on to indicate that the Test of Spirit will not shy away from siding with the Armenian opposition. “We have civil rights enshrined in our constitution and we must do everything to protect not only our rights but also those of our fellow citizens,” he said. “Most of all, their right to form government through free elections.”
The leaders of the new group plan to recruit hundreds of new members across Armenia in the coming weeks. They said virtually all members of Yerkrapah’s Malatia-Sebastia chapter have already joined them.
Bazeyan and other dissenters were conspicuously absent from the December 13 congress of Yerkrapah which reelected Deputy Defense Minister Manvel Grigorian as the organization’s chairman and formed a new board almost exclusively dominated by Kocharian loyalists.
Yerkrapah numbers about 11,000 members and acted as Sarkisian’s support base until his violent death in the October 1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament. In the ensuing power struggle inside Armenia’s leadership it supported government factions hostile to Kocharian until the beginning of 2000 when Grigorian and other top army generals pledged their loyalty to the head of state. The union’s political clout has since declined dramatically.
(Photolur photo: Albert Bazeyan.)