By Irina Hovannisian
A bitter dispute between two rival leaders of one of Armenia’s oldest opposition parties on Thursday flared up into violence that ended only after police intervention.
Hrant Khachatrian, the former longtime chairman of the Union for Constitutional Rights (SIM), and dozens of his supporters clashed with members of the rival faction holed up inside the small party’s Yerevan headquarters. They stormed it after law-enforcement officials refused to evict Hayk Babukhanian, the current SIM chairman, and his associates from the premises.
The SIM, which is a member of Armenia’s largest opposition alliance, has been in turmoil ever since a September congress during which Babukhanian controversially succeeded in unseating Khachatrian. The latter agreed to step down only to denounce the gathering as illegal several weeks later.
Citing serious procedural violations, an Armenian appeals court last month invalidated some of the decisions made by congress delegates. One of those decision related to the election of members of the new SIM board that picked Babukhanian as party leader. Khachatrian insists that this means he must be reinstated as chairman, a claim strongly denied by his erstwhile comrades-in-arms.
Khachatrian managed to enter the party office on Thursday morning with police officers and officials from the Armenian Justice Ministry’s Service for Mandatory Execution of Judicial Acts (SMEJA). They left the premises without providing any explanation an hour later.
Angered by their departure, Khachatrian was said to have hit Babukhanian in the face before dozens of his loyalists tried to break into the SIM headquarters. A special police unit was then rushed to scene to stop the clash.
“I slapped Babukhanian in the presence of his aides,” the veteran parliamentarian admitted afterwards. “Police saw everything, and I explained why I did that.”
Babukhanian denounced the assault as an act of “hooliganism” and said he will demand criminal proceedings against Khachatrian and his “thugs.” “I will demand that Mr. Khachatrian and the people who came with him be brought to account in accordance with the law,” he told RFE/RL.
Babukhanian also claimed that he has complied with the court ruling and that the SMEJA officials were satisfied with his explanation. “Mr. Khachatrian is simply lying,”, he said. “The ruling says nothing about him.”
Each oppositionist has accused the other of secretly collaborating with the Armenian authorities.