With ties still strained to the breaking point between the Armenian government and opposition, the query is far from academic.
Grigorian's 30,000-strong Yerkrapah [Custodian of the Land] Volunteers Union is a veterans' assistance group often termed "a state within a state." With a national network of members, many in key government posts, Yerkrapah has exercised considerable political influence since its 1993 formation. "[T]heir statement before every election about whom they support has been important," commented Vardan Abrahamian, a professor of political science at Yerevan State University.
Recognizing that importance, opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosian repeatedly told supporters in late February that the general and fellow Deputy Defense Minister General Gagik Melkonian had signed on to support his call for fresh elections. But neither Grigorian nor Melkonian ever publicly expressed his own view. In early May, Grigorian, who was fired from his post as deputy defense minister on April 2, declared that his organization "has never been and will not be engaged in politics and no one can speculate with its name."
At Yerevan's Yerablur cemetery of soldiers who fought in the 1988-1994 Karabakh war with Azerbaijan, though, the question of Yerkrapah's allegiances has a clear-cut answer. For the past three weeks, a group of over 100 individuals have been on a hunger strike both in the capital and in the northern town of Gyumri to protest the imprisonment of war veterans and the March 1 crackdown on opposition protestors. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
To these Yerkrapah members, Grigorian's apparently passive stance on Armenia's political divide is unacceptable. "[I]f he had stood by the people's side, the authorities would not have had the courage to use troops against the people," hunger striker Hayk Asatrian said in reference to the March 1 crackdown on Ter-Petrosian supporters.
Grigorian could not be reached for comment.
One associate, however, indicates that Ter-Petrosian has not been the only political figure courting the 52-year-old general. The associate, who asked not to be named, told EurasiaNet that for the past few weeks representatives of both President Serzh Sarkisian and ex-President Robert Kocharian have been visiting Grigorian at his home in Etchmiadzin, not far from Yerevan.
"Each tries to draw him to his own side," the associate said, expressing the widely held view that Kocharian is allegedly still attempting to exercise political influence.
The associate could not state the status of Grigorian's current relations with Ter-Petrosian. The general himself has never publicly addressed the ex-president's claims about his support; the Defense Ministry has vigorously denied them.
Many Ter-Petrosian supporters, however, believe that the large number of arrests among Yerkrapah members following March 1 was designed to weaken the union and to neutralize any potential political threat to the government it may pose.
According to the state prosecutor's office, 25 of the 52 individuals still in jail are Yerkrapah members. Their number includes Yerkrapah deputy director and parliamentarian Myasnik Malkhasian; five Yerkrapah members have already been sentenced to prison, while an additional four are on a wanted list. "Authorities understand very well that [the Union] is powerful and realized after the February election that they are losing control [over the group] because most of its members supported the former president," commented ex-deputy defense minister Vahan Shirkhanian, who served under President Kocharian from 1999 to 2000.
The governing Republican Party of Armenia, however, dismisses that opinion as groundless. Party spokesperson Eduard Sharmazanov says that all members of Yerkrapah "deserve the highest esteem" as heroes.
"[T]hey are in prison not because they are Yerkrapah members, but because they are charged with crimes," Sharmazanov asserted.
Government officials have so far kept mum about the general. On March 13, then President-Elect Serzh Sarkisian, who fought with Grigorian in Karabakh, told television viewers in reference to Grigorian that he found it "very sad and painful that he, for reasons unknown to me, tried to go into politics and made an attempt to disobey the Supreme Commander-in-Chief."
Grigorian had served as deputy defense minister since 1999, following outspoken Yerkrapah criticism of the government's handling of the 1999 parliamentary shootings that left eight people dead.
Within Grigorian's circle, though, the government is seen to be still holding a sizeable stick over the general. On April 6, Grigorian and an aide were charged with having allegedly threatened to murder an employee of airline Armavia and his family. A spokesperson for the general prosecutor's office declined to elaborate on the charge. "The case will remain open unless Manvel expresses readiness to cooperate with them [members of the Sarkisian administration]," Grigorian's associate speculated.
Meanwhile, Grigorian is keeping a low profile. On May 8, a memorial day for veterans, Grigorian visited the Yerablur cemetery alone to commemorate the war dead rather than with his usual Yerkrapah coterie. A traditional Victory Day concert also did not take place, Yerkrapah veterans say.
Following the general's April 2 dismissal from the Defense Ministry and disappearance from public life, many opposition supporters claimed that he had been placed under house arrest. But Yerkrapah spokesperson Hakob Hakobian now denies the claim, saying that Grigorian is at home in Etchmiadzin and is "very glad to have more time to spend on organizing Yerkrapah's activities."
For one senior Ter-Petrosian supporter, that news comes as no surprise. Both the government and the opposition, noted Suren Sureniants, a member of the opposition Republic Party's political council, "expected more from Manvel Grigorian than he could give."
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for the online weekly ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan.