By Ruzanna Stepanian
General Samvel Babayan, the once powerful ex-commander of Nagorno-Karabakh’s army, confirmed on Wednesday his intention to resume political activities in Armenia five years after being controversially imprisoned on coup charges.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, Babayan pointedly refused to lend his support to President Robert Kocharian or his political opponents. He also strongly denied speculation that he may have cut a secret deal with the Karabakh government to regain his freedom last September.
Babayan was released from prison more than four years after being convicted of masterminding a botched March 2000 attempt on the life of Arkady Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. He never pleaded guilty to the charges, denouncing the 14-year prison sentence as politically motivated.
Babayan suggested that he was set free due to his worsening “health problems” and insisted that he had not asked Ghukasian for an amnesty. “I would not allow anyone to talk to me with ultimatums or to dictate conditions,” he said. “If I were willing to accept conditions, I would not have spent four-and-a-half years in prison. I would not have been imprisoned at all.”
A former car mechanic, Babayan became commander of the Karabakh Armenian army at the height of its victorious 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan. He later emerged as the disputed region’s most powerful man, concentrating sweeping political and economic powers in his hands at a time when Karabakh was led Kocharian. Babayan began losing power in late 1999 following his defeat in a bitter power struggle with Ghukasian.
The 39-year-old former strongman laughed off suggestions that he promised not to return to Karabakh in exchange for his liberation. He said he now lives in Yerevan simply because “things are solved here.”
Babayan, who set up a private think-tank called Khachmeruk (Crossroads) recently, admitted that he is returning to active politics in Armenia but claimed that he will not form his own political party or seek high-level positions in government. He said he will instead sponsor political forces that “really think about this country’s future” but did not elaborate.
Babayan was equally vague about his current attitude toward Kocharian. While noting that the Armenian opposition’s existing “scenarios for regime change” are unrealistic, he made it clear that he will join calls for Kocharian’s resignation “if the public demands that.”
The retired general further did not rule out his or his allies’ participation in parliamentary elections which are due to take place in Karabakh in July. “Let’s just wait a bit,” he said. “Developments will tell. But do not rule out anything.”
Babayan, known for his hard line on Azerbaijan, was also pessimistic about prospects for the resolution of the Karabakh conflict in the near future. “The Karabakh problem is still very far from being resolved. There can be solution at this stage,” he said.
Babayan’s take on chances of renewed fighting in Karabakh was equally gloomy: “If the parties fail to resolve the conflict peacefully then a war between them will take place sooner or later.”