Yerkrapah: "Lightning Rod" or Political Force in Postwar Armenia?
The group's role as peacemaker stems from the diverse makeup of its board. What can unify Prime Minister Andranik Margarian with Hanrapetutiun party leader Albert Bazeyan, who is vigorously critical of the government? Where can powerful Deputy Defense Minister Manvel Grigorian see eye to eye with Mushegh Saghatelian, a former senior officer of the Interior Ministry, who is now in custody and faces trial on abuse of power? Since April 30, all four men serve on the governing board of the Union of Volunteers Yerkrapah ("Guard of the Country"). The group's fifth congress, which elected this diverse slate, may have raised Yerkrapah's standing.
"The most important result of the congress was that Yerkrapah remained a non-political, purely public organization," says Vardan Vardanyan, a political analyst with the A1+ TV channel. The volunteers always commanded a high degree of public respect: in Armenia, as in other newly independent countries embroiled in ethnic conflicts, volunteers served many functions of national armies.
Yerkrapah began in July 1993, one of the heaviest periods of the Karabakh war, and quickly played a prominent role in battles. It has drawn controversy in the ensuing years, as its successes have come to include the procurement of jobs and other benefits for members and their families. Grigorian, though, emphasizes the service the organization can provide. "We are convinced Armenia still needs Yerkrapah. The organization has a mission in the future. The danger of war has not yet ended," Grigorian says.
This vigilance appears sincere, but it also may comprise a response to stubborn resentment about some of Yerkrapah's influence. The volunteers remain on such high alert that they are creating a youth branch, mainly consisting of members' children, to ensure continuity of their ideas and deeds. This continues the organization's long-standing advocacy on behalf of members, whom it calls azatamaritiks ("freedom fighters") and of families of those killed in the war. Yerkrapah has won pieces of state property being privatized or business privileges, as well as patronage jobs, for members and their families.
Since the army supported the group in these efforts, its postwar image became rather negative. Yet the organization's new moderating role does not represent a violent reinvention. Yerkrapah always managed to avoid devolving into a quasi-criminal organization. The army leadership always supported the group, and charismatic Defense minister Vazgen Sargsian served as its Chairman before attacks on the Armenian Parliament in October 1999 claimed his life.
Yerkrapah assumes its new role in the shadow of Sargsian, who had become Armenia's Prime Minister before his murder. The fifth congress began with a recording of one of his famous speeches, in which he posited Yerkrapah as the "lightning rod" of society. In this speech, he urged members to separate the organization from the push and pull of politics. He decided to become a public politician in early 1999, joining the nationalist Republican party on his way to high office. "I am trying to separate the military and politicians by my person," he said at the time.
His successors in the Yerkrapah leadership have so far managed to keep the organization non-partisan. The group remains critical of the country's political leadership, but its members' political views plainly vary. (Vazgen's mother, Greta Sargsian, a retired province teacher, made a memorable speech at the congress.) As a result, the group's balanced statements, broadcast to its 8,300 members, maintain a non-partisan civic tone.
This balance has reinforced Yerkrapah's cohesion, say members, even as factions have tried to divide the organization's membership "There are many political forces and individuals that would like to split Yerkrapah as soon as possible. They fail or do not want to understand that it would be a fatal event for Armenia," says MP Ara Ketikian, who belongs to an opposition party and serves as Deputy Chairman of Yerkrapah. Grigorian claims that several organizations emerged with the obvious purpose of splitting Yerkrapah in the last 12 months and promptly disbanded. "They failed to survive, whereas Yerkrapah proved that it has been a necessary structure rather than an artificially-born body," he says. Vardanian asserts that most anti-Yerkrapah campaigns originated from the authorities, proving that President Robert Kocharyan wants to temper the organization's influence.
Indeed, as the organization grows more representative, its political muscle may again mold key events in public life. Apart from the above-mentioned parliamentary elections of May 1999, when Yerkrapah supported Sargsian's coalition, the group shaped public discourse immediately after October 27, 1999, when many Yerkrapah members demanded Kocharyan's resignation. It also played a policy role in March 2000, when rumors abounded that authorities were discussing a territory swap with Azerbaijan as a possible way to settle the Karabakh conflict. Sharp criticism from Yerkrapah decisively halted this talk, after which this option was withdrawn from the agenda. In both episodes, Yerkrapah's influence had no official recognition. In 1999, neutral leaders established that there was no legal requirement for Kocharyan's resignation; the following spring, officials denied that swap negotiations ever took place. Now that Yerkrapah represents a cross-section of Armenian public life, its involvement in public life may be more authoritative and harder to hide.
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.