By Artem Chernamorian in Gyumri
Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian was publicly embarrassed over the weekend by the angry family of a disappeared soldier as he campaigned in Armenia's northwestern Shirak region with the leadership of the governing Republican Party (HHK).
Sarkisian's speech at a campaign meeting in the local town of Maralik was nearly disrupted by angry protests from several relatives of Vahram Avetisian, an army conscript from the nearby Sarnaghbyur village who went missing near the Armenian-Azerbaijani border last fall. They challenged the powerful defense chief to find out the young man's whereabouts -- something which the Armenian military has failed to do so far.
A visibly irritated Sarkisian rebuked the protesters for what he described as "disrespectful treatment." "Dear people, according to our accepted rules, the one who stands on the podium speaks, while the audience has to listen," he said.
Sarkisian assured them that he is doing his best to locate Avetisian. He said any loss of servicemen is "painful" to him.
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, who heads the HHK, reacted more sharply to the incident. "Whoever slanders our army is the enemy of our nation," he charged.
The soldier's relatives hoped to have a separate meeting with Sarkisian. Witnesses said that they hurled stones at the motorcade of local Republican activists who passed through Sarnaghbyur to meet the HHK leaders earlier in the day.
The HHK is the most influential of more than a dozen pro-establishment parties contesting the May 25 parliamentary elections. The center-right nationalist party has controlled the biggest faction in the outgoing Armenian parliament, and hopes to have a similarly strong presence in the next National Assembly.
Some opinion polls show that the Republicans will have a hard time achieving that. The campaign trip to Shirak appeared to bear out those surveys as it failed to arouse much public enthusiasm. A planned open-air rally in the regional capital Gyumri attracted a thin crowd and was cancelled by the party bosses.
Voter apathy with party politics runs high in the area. Martin Abrahamian, a resident of the town of Artik, spoke for many when he said of Armenian politicians: "They believe in themselves, but the people don't."