YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The embattled leader of the People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK)–Stepan Demirchian–on Tuesday–accused Robert Kocharian of orchestrating the latest high-level defections from the HZhK–one of the few remaining political heavyweights opposed to the Armenian president.
In a frenzied reaction of support from the head of state to rebel HZhK deputies–Demirchian branded Kocharian as an illegitimate president who had stolen victory from his late father in the 1998 election. However–he again stopped short of announcing the formal break-up of the Miasnutyun alliance with the governing Republican Party.
The fierce attack–which could speed up the influential center-left party’s drift to the opposition–was provoked by Kocharian’s remark that Demirchian became HZhK chairman only on the hereditary basis–while those who have quit the party are the real followers of its popular founder–Karen Demirchian.
"I was unanimously elected to the party [leadership]–unlike Robert Kocharian who was not elected president–who was just made president," Demirchian told reporters in his party’s headquarters. "Karen Demirchian was elected president of the republic twice in two weeks."
The HZhK chairman was alluding to two rounds of voting in the presidential elections of March 1998–official results of which gave victory to Kocharian. The late Demirchian and his supporters charged massive vote rigging and claimed that they were the rightful winners of the poll. Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported numerous vote irregularities at the time–concluding that the ballot fell short of OSCE standards.
Visiting a factory in Yerevan earlier on Tuesday–Kocharian was asked to comment on the bitter policy dispute which threatened to split one of Armenia’s largest and most popular parties. Several members of the parliament–including Speaker Armen Khachatrian and his deputy Gagik Aslanian–have quit the HZhK in protest against its growing links with the anti-Kocharian opposition.
Kocharian said the defections were necessary as they created more "clarity in the political landscape." He said–"We can see that those who quit played a serious role in the party and were its pivotal figures."The party is not a property that can be bequeathed," he added–in another jibe directed at Demirchian.
The 42-year-old Demirchian–who bears a striking resemblance to his father murdered in the October 1999 attack on the parliament–did not mince his words to denounce Kocharian. He said–"I consider that statement immoral. I came to the party after a great tragedy and at the request of party activists. Karen Demirchian did not bequeath me the party–he bequeathed a sense of responsibility–dignity and devotion to the cause."
In a scornful reference to Kocharian’s 1998 campaign motto–"My party is my people," Demirchian said–"I would advise Robert Kocharian to think about his party–the people–instead of plotting intrigues and meddling in party affairs. Only a few deputies have left us–whereas the outflow from his party is much greater."
The HZhK faction in the National Assembly has halved to just nine deputies over the past week. Tuesday saw two more defections–which further reduced the party’s political influence.
"It is evident that Robert Kocharian is behind all this," Demirchian charged. He sought to put a brave face on the developmen’s though–declaring: "The defections are of course unfortunate–but the HZhK is not just a few deputies. Furthermore–there is now an influx of new members into the party."
However–Demirchian remained ambiguous about the future of the Miasnutyun bloc–which many observers believe exists only on paper. While insisting that Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and other Republican leaders "do not enjoy the people’s trust," Demirchian indicated that the HZhK will not formally split from the Miasnutyun for the time being. And he said it is "still too early" to speculate about alliances with radical opposition groups hostile to Kocharian.
Tensions between the two Miasnutyun partners were re-ignited last month when six defendants in the parliament shootings trial were cleared of complicity charges under a general amnesty initiated by the government. Demirchian said the move amounted to "state sponsorship of terrorism."
Many HZhK members still suspect Kocharian and his closest associates of having masterminded the parliament massacre. Demirchian underscored that suspicion when he claimed that the jailed gunmen that had carried out the killings are "more protected that any other criminals."