YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–A once powerful organization uniting thousands of Armenian veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh war has further underscored its loyalty to President Serzh Sarkisian by admitting senior government figures into its ranks in at least one Armenian region.
Local government chiefs and other senior members of Sarkisian’s Republican Party from the northwestern Shirak region have joined the Yerkrapah Union this month, just two years after it tacitly supported the Armenian opposition in a disputed presidential election.
Many members of the group backed opposition candidate Levon Ter-Petrosian in the February 2008 ballot and actively participated in post-election demonstrations organized by the former Armenian president. Some of them, including the group’s former deputy chairman, Miasnik Malkhasian, were among dozens of Ter-Petrosian supporters arrested and imprisoned afterwards.
General Manvel Grigorian, the top Yerkrapah leader who served as deputy defense minister at the time, was believed to have approved of their stance. Acting at the behest of outgoing President Robert Kocharian, more than a dozen top Armenian army officers terminated their membership in Yerkrapah in February 2008 in protest against Grigorian’s failure to stop his organization from being “used for dishonest political purposes.” The mustachioed general was formally sacked the following month.
Grigorian has since repeatedly denied having any links with the Ter-Petrosian-led opposition. Speaking at a Yerkrapah congress held in February, he pledged allegiance to Sarkisian and made sure that virtually all opposition backers are excluded from a new Yerkrapah board elected by the congress.
Grigorian attended on Thursday a meeting of the Yerkrapah chapter in Artik, a small town in Shirak. The Artik mayor, Khachik Varagian, his brother Mkhitarian, who is a parliament deputy, and several other members of the ruling Republican Party were elected to its governing board.
The mayor of Shirak’s capital Gyumri, Vartan Ghukasian, and a group of his loyalists also joined the local Yerkrapah structure at a similar meeting held by Grigorian last Saturday. None of them had participated in the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan.
“We don’t care about party affiliations,” Grigorian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “Yerkrapah is for a particular type of Armenians: those who have a sense of patriotism and self-esteem.”
“My son is also a mayor and a Yerkrapah branch leader,” he said. “What’s wrong with that? They are Armenians who want to serve their people and state and get elected.”
The former head of the Yerkrapah branch in Shirak, Ashot Zakarian, was removed from that position last year while serving a highly controversial two-and-a-half year sentence which he received during the Armenian government’s post-election crackdown on the opposition. Zakarian boycotted the recent Yerkrapah congress in Yerevan.
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.