By Ruzanna Stepanian
Armenia’s intensifying presidential race appears to have split thousands of participants of the 1992-1994 war with Azerbaijan into two rival camps supporting Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian and his leading opposition challenger, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian.
The endorsement of Ter-Petrosian’s presidential bid by a considerable number of Armenian war veterans is particularly noteworthy given his conciliatory views on how to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Sarkisian and other Armenian leaders have long been accusing Ter-Petrosian of favoring a “sellout” peace deal with Azerbaijan.
The Yerkrapah Union, the largest and most influential of the veteran groups, has so far refrained from endorsing any of the presidential candidates. Its leadership is largely made up of top army generals who have been loyal to outgoing President Robert Kocharian for much of his decade-long rule and are therefore unlikely to openly challenge his favored successor.
Still, many rank-and-file members of the union make no secret of their support for Aram Sarkisian, a radical opposition politician whose assassinated brother Vazgen was the founding leader of Yerkrapah. Sarkisian is now a leading political ally of Ter-Petrosian.
Deputy Defense Minister Manvel Grigorian and other Yerkrapah leaders could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. Other veteran unions were more forthcoming in naming their preferred candidate to RFE/RL.
The Union Of Freedom Fight Veterans, which also claims to have thousands of members, made it clear that it strongly backs a transfer to power from Kocharian to Sarkisian. It cited, among other things, the fact that the latter was a wartime commander-in-chief of Karabakh Armenian forces. “We believe that nobody has a better idea of the Artsakh problem and its resolution than Serzh Sarkisian,” said Hakob Grigorian, the union chairman. Grigorian also praised Sarkisian’s personal contribution to Armenia’s decade-long economic growth.
But according to other prominent veterans, that contribution has been anything but positive. “For us, Levon Ter-Petrosian is a more acceptable candidate than, say, Serzh Sarkisian, who has wrecked this country before our eyes over the past decade,” charged Mikael Apresian of the Council of Field Commanders.
Apresian told RFE/RL that the council will soon officially announce its backing of Ter-Petrosian’s presidential candidature. Among its leaders are also Arkady Karapetian, head of the Yerkrapah branch in Karabakh, and Vladimir Karapetian, commander of Tigran Mets, one of the largest Armenian volunteer militias that had successfully fought Azerbaijani troops.
Also endorsing Ter-Petrosian were the leaders of two other, smaller paramilitary groups known as “squads.” Like Tigran Mets, they were disarmed after a Russian-mediated truce stopped the Karabakh war in 1994 but seem to have maintained their organizational structure.
“We won the war under [Ter-Petrosian’s] leadership,” said Lendrush Tonoyan, commander of the Sasun squad. “All military operations were ordered by him.”
Tonoyan claimed that Ter-Petrosian’s victory in the February 19 election is vital for “the survival of Armenian nation.” “The plight of our people is no good today,” he said.
Ara Khudaverdian of the Kornidzor squad also made a case for Ter-Petrosian’s return to power. “I think there would be some personnel and other changes that will lead to some improvement in the socioeconomic situation,” he said.
According to some Ter-Petrosian aides, a total of two dozen former militias are now supporting the ex-president, who was forced to step down in 1998 for advocating more concessions to Azerbaijan. Ter-Petrosian reaffirmed his belief that Armenia’s long-term security and development is contingent on a Karabakh settlement as he returned to active politics in September. Kocharian, Sarkisian and their allies responded to these statements with renewed allegations that he wants to “surrender” Karabakh to Azerbaijan.
These allegations were emphatically denounced last week by Zhirayr Sefilian, another renowned war veteran who was controversially jailed by the Armenian authorities a year ago. In a statement issued from his prison, Sefilian, who supports Ter-Petrosian despite his strong opposition to Armenian territorial concessions to Azerbaijan, said he believes that the ex-president “would not rush to resolve the conflict” in the event of his victory.