By Astghik Bedevian
A top Armenian army general was alleged on Friday to have kidnapped a dozen supporters of a politician who is challenging one of his protégés in the upcoming local election in Echmiadzin, a town 20 kilometers south of Yerevan.
At least nine men representing the election challenger, Yervand Aghvanian, reportedly disappeared during a disrupted campaign rally on Thursday and remained missing as of late Friday. Aghvanian’s aides described that as the latest manifestation of what they call a campaign of intimidation of local voters unleashed by Deputy Defense Minister Manvel Grigorian, the powerful patron of their main rival. Police in Echmiadzin, however, refused to investigate the alleged hostage taking.
According to Aghvanian’s campaign manager, Voskehat Hayrapetian, ten of her activists were kidnapped by Grigorian’s men as they prepared for a rally in the town center. She said only one of them, an 18-year-old man identified as Gevorg Abrahamian, was set free the next day.
“They beat him up, forced into a taxi car and sent to Yervand Aghvanian’s apartment,” Hayrapetian told RFE/RL. “He was told to inform Aghvanian that anyone who would dare to stand by Aghvanian, both during the pre-election and post-election periods, will end up in the same situation.”
“Gevorg says Manvel Grigorian personally beat him up,” said Susanna Harutiunian, a former election candidate who withdrew from the race in Aghvanian’s favor. The teenager is now in hiding, she added.
Harutiunian also claimed that the hostage-takers contacted her by phone in the morning. “I first heard a litany of abuse,” she said. “They then said if we don’t stop [campaigning], none of [the missing activists] will return. But I told them that our struggle won’t stop.”
Aghvanian’s campaign chief immediately informed the Echmiadzin police of the men’s disappearance. But the head of the local police department, Edik Sukiasian, refused to launch criminal proceedings in connection with the incident.
“Nobody was kidnapped,” Sukiasian told RFE/RL before forcing this correspondent out of the local police headquarters.
The national Police Service in Yerevan is also unlikely to investigate the reported hostage-taking. Officials there said it was not included in the daily lists of crimes and other incidents across Armenia registered by the police.
A group of Aghvanian supporters gathered outside President Robert Kocharian’s official residence in Yerevan on Thursday night and the next morning to request the Armenian leader’s intervention in the tense run-up to Sunday’s election of Echmiadzin’s mayor. Officials in the presidential administration refused to meet them.
For his part, Gagik Avagian, the candidate sponsored by Grigorian, and the deputy chief of the local electricity network, insisted that none of his or the powerful general’s loyalists carried out illegal acts. “Everything is normal,” he told RFE/RL. “As for the general, he is our friend and fellow citizen. I don’t see any problems.”
Avagian also enjoys the backing of the regional governor and two member of the Armenian parliament representing Echmiadzin and the surrounding area. One of them, Hrant Grigorian, is the general’s nephew, while the other, Hakob Hakobian, is notorious for spending two weeks in a prison in the United Arab Emirates last January on suspicion of shop-lifting.
Hakobian, better known to most Armenians with his “Choyt” nickname, dismissed the kidnapping allegations as “blackmail” and threatened to take the rival candidate to court. “I can state on behalf of everyone here that there was no kidnapping,” he said at Avagian’s campaign headquarters.
However, many of the visibly scared Echmiadzin residents will unlikely take such statements at face value. “They do anything they want, the situation has become terrible,” said one man.
“How can they beat our young men?” asked another local resident. “They are treating the people like a rag. How can they do that? Should we flee this place?”
“Fear is running high here,” said Susanna Harutiunian whose small apartment serves as the headquarters of the Aghvanian campaign. Finding office space in Echmiadzin, she claimed, is impossible for those who challenge General Grigorian.
Echmiadzin and surrounding villages have long been considered a de facto fiefdom of Grigorian and another top army general, Seyran Saroyan. The two former truck drivers rose to prominence during the war 1991-1994 for Nagorno-Karabakh, first as militia leaders and then as commanders of regular army units. They both have extensive business interests in the Echmiadzin area and other parts of Armenia.
The burly generals are thought to have been instrumental in President Robert Kocharian’s victory in a bitter power struggle with government factions that suspected him of masterminding the October 1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament. They were promoted by Kocharian in early 2000 and have since solidified their positions. Both men live in luxury houses in Echmiadzin and usually ride in motorcades made up of expensive SUVs with virtually identical and easy-to-remember license plates.
Grigorian became embroiled in another scandal earlier this year when his bodyguards reportedly dragged a priest out of his car and beat him for not yielding to the mustachioed general’s motorcade. Nobody was prosecuted in connection with the reported violence.
It is still not known how the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II, reacted to it. Incidentally, Garegin’s official residence and the church headquarters are located in Echmiadzin.
“This place is not Aghdam or Fizuli which [Grigorian] can capture,” Harutiunian said, referring to Armenian-occupied towns in Azerbaijan. “This is Echmiadzin and I would like to draw His Holiness’s attention to what has been happening here. He is still keeping silent. How can he tolerate so much lawlessness in a town that hosts his headquarters?”