Karabakh Veterans Split by Conflicting Loyalties

The Yerkrapah Union of Volunteers, which once united Armenia's war veterans, has fallen victim to political in-fighting

Karabakh Veterans Split by Conflicting Loyalties

The Yerkrapah Union of Volunteers, which once united Armenia's war veterans, has fallen victim to political in-fighting

Veterans from the bloody Karabakh war are becoming entangled in the complex web of Armenian politics as a welter of rival organisations vie for their support.


The veterans, who until this year were united under the aegis of a single organisation, can now choose from at least three competing groups claiming to represent their interests.


The catalyst for the latest round of positioning was the rift between the government and the original veterans' movement, the Yerkrapah Union of Volunteers (YUV), following the assassination of its founder, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, in the Armenian parliament last year.


The YUV had been set up in 1994 by Sarkisian, then the defence minister. Originally staunchly pro-government, it was used to suppress opposition protests on the streets of Yerevan in 1995 and 1996. But with the finger-pointing that followed the killing of Sarkisian, the Volunteers devoted much of their energies to criticising President Robert Kocharian's administration.


Last May, a rival organisation, the Veterans of the War of Liberation (VWL), was launched by Major-General Arkady Ter-Tadevosian, one of the leaders of the YUV. Ter-Tadevosian, better known as "the Commando", led one of the most notable operations in the Karabakh War, the liberation of Shushi.


Ter-Tadevosian hit out at the growing politicisation of the YUV and said his organisation would defend the interests of those veterans who had found themselves to be surplus to requirements. He pledged support for Kocharian and stressed there should be no conflict with the YUV.


"The VWL is an open organisation, prepared to take into its ranks or cooperate with any healthy forces in society and anyone who is not indifferent to the fate of the people and the country," he said.


Observers were quick to conclude that the VWL had been set up to counterbalance the YUV. The Aravot newspaper speculated that Kocharian's government had set up the VWL in a bid to weaken the YUV and to move a portion of its active members to the banners of Ter-Tadevosian's organisation. Rank-and-file members of the YUV were becoming critical of their leadership, claiming that they were paying too much attention to politics and forgetting the rank-and-file veterans and their families who were suffering from mass unemployment.


Ter-Tadevosian's initiative was not universally popular, and several days after his organisation was formed, the general's home in Yerevan was sprayed with bullets. No one has yet been arrested in connection with the attack.


While denying he was trying to win over members of the YUV, Ter-Tadevosian attracted several thousand members to his VWL in just a few short weeks. The organisation set up regional groups across Armenia and prepared to hold its first congress.


Then, in mid-July, Ter-Tadevosian suddenly announced that he was leaving the VWL to set up yet another veterans' organisation, Commando. He said he had fallen out with the other members of the VWL Council who, in his opinion, were governed by their own ambitions and not by their concerns for the actual veterans.


The Council in turn announced that Ter-Tadevosian had been expelled because of his support for a series of major commercial structures which, in its view, did not fit the image of an honest and 'untouchable' activist.


Ter-Tadevosian's new organisation has not yet been formed, and the veterans that left with him remain unrepresented. From the very formation of VWL, the organisation contained a fairly independent 'United Front' (UF), headed by Levon Eiramdzhyanets, a former career diplomat. This group, numbering several thousand, contains many who did not previously belong to the YUV. The United Front has not yet declared its political sympathies or its plans. Local analysts believe it may become a significant political force if rumours of its intentions to unite with the organisation of Karabakh veterans and other groups are confirmed.


The YUV meanwhile denies that it is overstepping the mark in its involvement in politics. It "is involved in politics only to the extent that is allowed by the laws of the country." according to Yerevan mayor Albert Bazeyan, the vice president of the organisation. The YUV "is not involved in the process of elections in Armenia as an independent political force, simply supporting one or another force," he said.


The YUV turned from a social organisation into a political force when it backed Kocharian as president in 1998. The YUV stance, with its members in key posts in the Armenian army, was believed to have been crucial in persuading Levon Ter-Petrosian and his supporters to hand over power to the new president without any visible signs of conflict.


But within a year, relations between Kocharian and the YUV had soured. Following the murder of the effective leader of Yerkrapah, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, the leaders of the YUV came into direct opposition with the authorities and openly demanded Kocharian's resignation.


"We have shed blood for this country, and we cannot remain indifferent to its future fate," argued YUV leaders.


But Kocharian effectively neutralised the leaders of Yerkrapah by appointing them to key posts in the Armenian Defence Ministry. YUV chief Manvel Grigorian, previously a corps commander, was appointed Deputy Defence Minister, and his supporters also received high posts. Since then they have demonstrated unfailing loyalty to the president.


So Armenian veterans of the Karabakh war now have three or even four veteran organisations. One veteran, who preferred to remain anonymous, comments that the more organisations there are, the less hope there is that veterans will get any form of assistance whatsoever. "I've been lucky. My brother, who works in Russia, has given me some money and I've opened a little shop which lets me look after my family. But dozens of my war comrades are now working as street sweepers or guards at markets and car parks, earning just a dollar a day."


Karine Ter-Saakyan is an independent Armenian journalist


Support our journalists