Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 234

Armenia’s most muscular political force, the Yerkrapah [Country Defender] Union, has openly raised the issue of removing the country’s president, Robert Kocharian, from office. Yerkrapah, an 8,000-strong paramilitary organization beholden to Vazgen Sarkisian and his successors, is over-represented in the governing Republican Party and dominates the territorial administrations, functioning as the Defense Ministry’s mechanism of control over the political system. At the Yerkrapah congress on December 4, most delegates supported calls for removing Kocharian and/or calling a pre-term presidential election in 2000–that is, only two years into Kocharian’s term of office–with the obvious intention of replacing him. Those demands did not figure in the congress’ official resolution, but were contained in the keynote speeches and were received enthusiastically. The congress was equally receptive to speakers’ insinuations that Kocharian’s entourage was the real beneficiary of the October 27 massacre which took the life of, among others, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian.

The congress elected the late prime minister as “perpetual chairman” of Yerkrapah and a new leadership filled with foes of Kocharian. These include the new chairman Major-General Manvel Grigorian, three other Defense Ministry officials of major general rank, as well as Industrial Infrastructure Minister Vahan Shirkhanian and Yerevan mayor Albert Bazeian. Shirkhanian and two of the generals had been among the Defense Ministry’s envoys who attempted to pressure Kocharian into appointing a military-dominated government on October 27.

The congress also proclaimed the Yerkrapah Union’s loyalty to the army, to the memory of Vazgen Sarkisian and to the person of his brother and successor as prime minister Aram Sarkisian, urged the nation to rally around the military and the prime minister (without mentioning the president), and officially called for “uncovering the organizers and executants” of the October 27 “coup d’etat”–an allusion and a warning to the presidential camp. The investigation is in the hands of the Chief Military Prosecutor Khachik Jahangirian and the Internal Affairs Ministry’s Criminal Investigations chief Mushegh Saghatelian, two Yerkrapah members and Sarkisian cronies, who are believed to consider implicating Kocharian’s entourage in the “plot” and the assassinations. On December 15, the military prosecutor began questioning Kocharian’s foreign policy adviser and close personal associate, Aleksan Harutiunian. It remains unclear whether Harutiunian’s status is that of witness or suspect. Kocharian, under pressure, had to release Harutiunian from his post and was reduced to expressing the hope that the investigators would treat his departing aide in accordance with due process of law. Only days earlier, Kocharian had given vent to his concern that the military investigators may be pressing the arrested terrorists into giving false testimony for political ends.

Kocharian has only few means to counterattack. He has held unsuccessful or inconclusive meetings with the parliamentary leadership, business circles, intelligentsia representatives and the Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin II, at the seat in Holy Echmiadzin. None of those forces seem to have rallied behind him. Kocharian is basically limited to issuing infrequent, albeit acerbic, statements through his spokesman Vahe Gabrielian for broadcast on national television, whose management remains loyal to the president. Any move by the Sarkisian camp to replace that management should be taken as a coup alert.

On December 13, presidential chief of staff and Security Council Secretary Serge Sarkisian (no relation to Vazgen and Aram) called a news conference to warn Yerkrapah leaders and unspecified military commanders that he is in a position to reveal their involvement in corruption and crime. Simultaneously, a “spontaneous” demonstration was held outside the main government building–Aram Sarkisian’s seat of power–in Yerevan to protest against the detention of an independent parliamentary deputy, whom the investigators accuse of complicity with the October 27 assassins. Serge Sarkisian is one of Kocharian’s most reliable and skillful supporters, but his real power has receded dramatically of late. He was a powerful Minister of National Security and Internal Affairs until earlier this year, when Vazgen Sarkisian deprived Serge of half his power by separating National Security from Internal Affairs. Aram Sarkisian then completed his brother’s work by pressuring Kocharian to release Serge Sarkisian from the Internal Affairs portfolio. Kocharian rewarded his ally with the two posts on the presidential staff, from which redoubt Serge Sarkisian can selectively open the files he has been keeping on the president’s adversaries. But Yerkrapah members and deputies of the governing Republican Party—two interlocked organizations–lost no time retorting that they, too, hold “compromising materials” against Kocharian’s supporters, including Serge Sarkisian, whom detractors accuse of controlling an undue share of export-import operations.

The “Karabakh clan” factor renders Kocharian’s position even more difficult. Public resentment has been building in Armenia proper against Karabakh natives–such as Kocharian and Serge Sarkisian–who are seen as exercising a disproportionate share of power in Yerevan and are even being blamed for the economic hardships that the struggle for Karabakh has imposed on Armenia. Kocharian has the support of only two small parties in Armenia proper, both of them linked to the “Karabakh clan.” One of those parties, “Country of Laws,” is led from the shadows by none other than Serge Sarkisian; the other, Right and Accord, is led also covertly by Samvel Babaian from his Stepanakert headquarters. Serge Sarkisian and Babaian, both holding lieutenant-general rank, are a former commander and present commander, respectively, of the Karabakh defense forces. In Armenia’s political system, political parties are essentially fronts for groups in the military and security establishment and individual commanders. This applies to both camps involved in the current power struggle and poses the risk of turning political rivalry into armed confrontation (Noyan-Tapan, Snark, Azg, Armenpress, Armenian Television, Respublika Armeniya, Golos Armenii, December 6-16; see the Monitor, October 28, November 1, 3, 8, 18, 24; The Fortnight in Review, November 5, December 3).