By Emil Danielyan
President Robert Kocharian dismissed on Wednesday a prominent army general and deputy defense minister who is thought to have tacitly supported opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian in Armenia’s troubled presidential election.
A short statement by Kocharian’s office did not say why Lieutenant-General Manvel Grigorian was relieved of his duties. Victor Soghomonian, the presidential press secretary, told RFE/RL that the reason for the move is “obvious” but declined to elaborate.
The sacking has been widely anticipated since Prime Minister and President-elect Serzh Sarkisian publicly accused Grigorian on March 14 of refusing to comply with Kocharian’s orders. “I very much regret that for some unknown reason, Manvel Grigorian tried to get into politics and tried to disobey the commander-in-chief,” Sarkisian said in televised remarks. “I think all circumstances must be clarified and the matter must find a solution.”
Grigorian, who was reportedly forced to take a leave of absence in the wake of the February 19 election, could not be reached for comment.
The mustachioed general is also the chairman of the Yerkrapah Union uniting thousands of Armenian veterans of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Most members of the once powerful group, including its deputy chairman Miasnik Malkhasian, backed Ter-Petrosian’s presidential bid and actively participated in post-election demonstrations organized by the former Armenian president. Grigorian is believed to have approved of their stance, even though he has never publicly commented on the presidential race.
Ter-Petrosian claimed to have secured the backing of Grigorian and another deputy defense minister, Gagik Melkonian, as he began on February 21 a campaign of non-stop rallies against the official results of the election. “Manvel Grigorian and Gagik Melkonian are saying that they will not allow the army to meddle in politics and be used against their people,” Ter-Petrosian told tens of thousands of supporters in Yerevan. “Manvel Grigorian and Gagik Melkonian consider themselves the guarantors of the security of the Armenian people.”
Both generals were conspicuously absent from Kocharian’s and Sarkisian’s meeting two days later with the top brass of Armenia’s Armed Forces. Kocharian told the army command that he “will not allow anyone to play a shadowy role” in the post-election developments in Armenia. “No structure can place itself beyond law and engage in illegal activities,” he said in an apparent reference to Yerkrapah.
Just hours after that meeting, six army generals and eight colonels loyal to Kocharian and Sarkisian announced that they are ending their membership in Yerkrapah in protest against Grigorian’s failure to stop his organization being “used for dishonest political purposes.” They subsequently helped Kocharian quell the post-election protests by sending troops to Yerevan and enforcing a 20-day state of emergency declared by the outgoing president.
Grigorian rose to prominence during the 1992-1994 war when he organized and commanded Armenian volunteer units that successfully fought Azerbaijani forces in Karabakh. His status of a war hero and close ties with Vazgen Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh), the late founder of the Armenian army widely revered by the veterans, enabled the former truck driver to build a substantial political and economic clout in the following years. He has since held sway in the southern town of Echmiadzin and nearby villages.
Grigorian was also a key member of a powerful government faction that nearly unseated Kocharian in the wake of the October 1999 armed attack on Armenia’s parliament that left its speaker Karen Demirchian, then Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and six other officials dead. The faction members suspected Kocharian and Serzh Sarkisian of masterminding the killings.
Grigorian was promoted by and pledged allegiance to Kocharian in early 2000, effectively predetermining the embattled president’s eventual victory in the bitter power struggle.