By Ruzanna Stepanian
General Samvel Babayan, the once powerful ex-commander of Nagorno-Karabakh’s army, held on Thursday the founding congress of his new political party which he claimed will not support or oppose Armenia’s leadership.
“We don’t think we should be left-wing or right-wing, opposition or pro-government,” Babayan told reporters during the gathering attended by hundreds of activists and representatives of other political parties. “I will say what I think is right. Whether that will hurt someone is not my problem.”
“If you want me to curse the president of the republic, I will do that,” said Babayan. “But that’s not what I need. What I need is to solve issues. You can’t do that with mud-slinging.”
Babayan also denied that his party called Dashink (Alliance) will serve as a political base for his potential presidential ambitions. “I was not and will not be a presidential candidate,” he said. “I didn’t enter Armenian politics in order to get a post. I want to be useful for the society. I have already earned a place in our history.”
Dashink, Babayan continued, will concentrate on more apolitical issues like “decentralization of government” and reform of Armenia’s judicial system. But he pointedly refused to express an opinion on President Robert Kocharian’s draft constitutional amendments that deal with these issues.
Among prominent politicians who addressed the Dashink congress were Vazgen Manukian of the opposition National Democratic Union (AZhM) and Vahan Hovannisian of the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). Both men praised the former strongman and said they look forward to cooperating with his party. “We are acquiring a reliable and credible partner and perhaps ally for our struggle for social justice and against corruption,” declared Hovannisian.
Ironically, Babayan was known for anything but respect for the rule of law when he commanded the Karabakh army from 1993-1999. A former car mechanic who rose to prominence during the victorious war with Azerbaijan, he was the Armenian-controlled region’s most power man at the time, controlling much of economic activity and hardly tolerating dissent.
Babayan’s star began to fade in late 1999 when lost a power struggle with Arkady Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. In March 2000, he was arrested and subsequently convicted of masterminding a botched attempt on Ghukasian’s life. He never pleaded guilty to the charges, denouncing the 14-year prison sentence handed to him as politically motivated.
The 39-year-old general was unexpectedly released from prison in September 2004, fueling speculation that he may have cut a deal with Kocharian. According to that theory, Babayan was set free to help the Armenian leadership implement a possible unpopular peace deal with Azerbaijan.
Babayan has repeatedly dismissed such claims. Still, he has clearly softened his formerly hardline position on resolving the Karabakh conflict. He noted on Thursday that its peaceful settlement requires another referendum on independence in Karabakh. The idea of such a referendum is reportedly at the heart of a peace accord discussed by the conflicting parties at present.
Incidentally, representatives of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party as well as the opposition People’s and Hanrapetutyun parties were conspicuously absent from the Dashink congress.