A once powerful organization uniting thousands of Armenian veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh war has pledged to support President Serzh Sarkisian in the upcoming national elections four years after effectively backing his most formidable political foe, Levon Ter-Petrosian.
The Yerkrapah Union reaffirmed its allegiance to Sarkisian during a weekend congress that reelected General Manvel Grigorian, a former deputy defense minister, as its chairman.
“We must actively participate in all upcoming elections,” Grigorian told the high-profile gathering. “Dear comrades-in-arms, let us welcome the president of the republic, Serzh Sarkisian, who is present in the auditorium.”
“We believe and trust you and stand by your efforts to meet challenges facing our country,” he said.
The congress reiterated this pledge in a declaration unanimously adopted by several hundred Yerkrapah delegates. The document referred to the head of state, also a war veteran, as “our comrade-in-arms.”
Speaking at an ensuing news conference Grigorian did not deny that the Yerkrapah leadership will help Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) win the parliamentary elections due in May. “We said nothing about the Republican Party. But the president is our comrade-in-arms and we will stand by him,” he said.
“Do not forget that he was our defense minister during the heavy fighting in 1993-1994,” he added. “We executed his orders during the war. He didn’t leave us on the battlefield and we didn’t betray him, carrying out all of his orders.”
The remarks highlighted a dramatic turnaround in Grigorian’s stance since Armenia’s last presidential election held in February 2008. Many Yerkrapah members backed Ter-Petrosian, the main opposition candidate, and actively participated in his post-election demonstrations. Grigorian was thought to have approved of that.
Ter-Petrosian publicly called the mustachioed general a national hero and said the latter will make sure that the Armenian army is not used for suppressing the opposition street protests against alleged vote rigging. Acting at the behest of outgoing President Robert Kocharian, more than a dozen top Armenian army officers terminated their membership in Yerkrapah in the following days, accusing Grigorian of allowing the opposition to use his organization for “dishonest political purposes.”
Grigorian was sacked as deputy defense minister in April 2008, one month after the military helped the Kocharian-Sarkisian duo quell the protests. Sarkisian publicly accused him at the time of refusing to obey Kocharian’s orders.
The Yerkrapah leader afterwards repeatedly denied having any links with the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition. In February 2010, he pledged allegiance to Sarkisian and made sure that virtually all opposition backers are excluded from a new Yerkrapah board.
In a speech at the Yerkrapah congress held on Saturday, President Sarkisian was full of praise for the organization, noting its “considerable positive influence” on developments in the country. “The atmosphere in our country has also been conditioned by Yerkrapah’s civic stance,” he said. “In Yerkrapah we have an organization which is concerned with the people’s fate and devoid of adventurism and continues to have a clear, principled position on key issues.”
Yerkrapah had enjoyed substantial political clout in Armenia until the October 1999 assassination of its founder, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh). It has lost much of that influence since then.
Levon Zurabian, a top aide to Ter-Petrosian, pointed to Yerkrapah’s diminished role in Armenian politics as he commented on the electoral backing promised to Sarkisian. “The fact that the authorities are trying to clinch statements from forces having zero role in politics shows that the authorities are very worried,” Zurabian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Zurabian claimed that most war veterans continue to support Ter-Petrosian’s Armenian National Congress (HAK) alliance. “Today all individuals, senior commanders who participated in the war are with the [opposition] movement,” he said.
Yerkrapah’s stance was also criticized by Armen Martirosian, a leader of the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party. He said it is “unacceptable” for a supposedly apolitical organization to openly side with one of the election contenders.