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Armenia Goes From Bad To Worse

Calls by senior figures in the powerful Union of Karabakh Volunteers for Armenian President Robert Kocharian to resign have intensified speculation that the Armenian military are pursuing a more active role in Armenian politics.
By Mark Grigorian

Speaking at an emergency December congress of Yerkrapah - the powerful Union of Karabakh Volunteers - Vahan Shirkhanian, Minister for Coordination of Industrial Infrastructures called, controversially, for new presidential elections and the replacement of President Robert Kocharian.


"The present situation in Armenia makes it necessary to hold new presidential elections," Shirkhanian said, as "only in this way... can we restore the people's confidence and belief, achieve real stability, rescue the country from destruction and maintain its natural development".


Armenia's former Interior and National Security Minister, Serge Sarkisian dismissed Shirkhanian's speech as orchestrated comments instigated by unnamed figures close to former army commanders. Sarkisian said the criticisms of Kocharian did not reflect the views of the majority of Yerkrapah members.


Yerkrapah was the main power base of the murdered Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, a close ally of Shirkhanian.


Sarkisian founded the organisation in 1993 to help Karabakh war veterans cope with their social and economic problems. Patriotism is at the core of Yerkrapah's ideology. A self-styled nationalist centrist organisation Yerkrapah place great emphasis on strengthening patriotic spirit.


Indeed given the cornerstones of the organisation are social problems backed by a strong nationalism the label 'national-socialist' seems more apt. Yerkrapah is a part of the Republican Party, which, in its turn is a part of the "Unity" alliance, which won a parliamentary majority in the May 1999 elections.


Several senior army officers joined the condemnation of Kocharian at the congress. The inner circle of the ex-premier - which controls Yerkrapah and holds key positions in the army - holds Kocharian and the former ministers of interior and national security responsible for the poor security at parliament prior to the killing of their founder on October 27.


Shirkhanian's call for Kocharian's resignation was greeted with a storm of applause from the 840 delegates and 350 or more guests present at the congress.


The call for Kocharian's resignation and early presidential elections was not, however, repeated in the final declaration adopted by the congress. Although the declaration does state that Yerkrapah will support the prime minister of Armenia, Aram Sarkisian and the Unity bloc, Kocharian's name was quite pointedly excluded from the list indicating he can no longer draw on this pillar of support.


In response to Shirkhanian's speech, Kocharian's spokesman, Bahe Gabrielian reminded journalists that it should not be forgotten that Shirkhanian occupies his post only because a compromise reached between Kocharian and Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian.


It appears the president can not forget that only two hours after the parliamentary murders, Shirkhanian presented Kocharian with a list of new cabinet members for ratification. Aram Sarkisian, after being appointed prime minister, invited Shirkhanian to become the Minister for Coordination of Industrial Infrastructures.


The president disagreed with the appointment but a compromise was reached and Shirkhanian duly appointed. An informed source told IWPR that the compromise was achieved only after the prime minister's mother intervened in the negotiations.


None of the parties represented in parliament supported Shirkhanian's call for Kocharian's resignation. Even the Republican Party (Yerkrapah's political arm) criticised his words. Tigran Torosian, vice-president of the Republican Party, told journalists that Shirkhanian was expressing a personal point of view.


Hrant Khachatrian, chairman of the Constitutional Right Union, told IWPR, "from the first days of independence [in Armenia] the power has been with those who possess finances and weapons and they are those responsible for the present situation in the country".


Arthur Baghdasarian, chairman of the Orinats Erkir faction, recalled how Vazgen Sarkisian once said: "If I shall not do politics, the army will." Baghdasarian said, "today we see a confirmation of that".


The theme of the army's involvement in Armenian political life has become more and more important, especially after general Manvel Grigorian was elected as the new chairman of Yerkrapah. Grigorian exercises considerable influence in the army and is a 'clan' leader and controls one of the regions of Armenia. Shirkhanian also has close associations with the army, strengthened during his spell as deputy minister of defense from 1995 to 1999.


And though all Yerkrapah manifestos and declarations stress the necessity of establishing democracy in Armenia and developing the institutions of a civil society, the army is always mentioned too.


"[Yerkrapah] will promote full establishment of state and democratic institutions, the implanting of civilised relations directed at the country's development and will direct its entire potential and devotion to raise the efficiency and discipline of the Armenian army."


Sarkisian addressed Parliament on December 2 and was in full compliance with the Yerkrapah statements: "There is no alternative to democracy in Armenia and everything possible must be done to develop and strengthen it".


However, he immediately added that one of the main achievements of Armenia was the creation of a combat-ready army. Sarkisian went on to say that no one has the right to demand that the Armenian army does not have a role to play in countering dangers threatening Armenia.


Political instability in Armenia caused by the shootings on October 27 continues to deepen. Ashot Manucharian, political secretary of the Alliance of Socialist Forces said of the attack, "the whole system of the country was offended. All levels are smashed: political, economic, moral, psychological."


The strengthening of Yerkrapah and the increasing of influence of the army on all aspects of life in Armenia are frightening. Society generally continues to be alienated from the political process and the combination of a national-socialist Yerkrapah and an interfering army presents an unpleasant future for the country.


International reaction has been very low-key. Neither the United States nor the Russian embassies in Yerevan commented on the recent developments. However, Aram Sarkisian was warmly received by Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin on December 7-8 and reaffirmed Armenia as a "strategic partner of Russia". Judy O'Connor, a senior World Bank official met with the Sarkisian and Kocharian on December 14 and said Bank loans to Armenia will continue.


"The international community has no choice," believes Hratch Tatevian, a Yerevan-based analyst. "They will work with anyone in the Armenian government, because the country plays a key role in the Caucasus. But I am afraid, it will be too late, when the military come to power".


"The 21st century will be our century," reads the Declaration of the Yerkrapah congress. In reply, Karineh Petrosian, a teacher from Yerevan speaks clearly: "I do not want such a future for my country."


Mark Grigorian is IWPR's project associate in Yerevan and Director of the NGO Cooperation and Democracy.


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