After years of self-imposed exile in Russia, General Samvel Babayan, Nagorno-Karabakh’s former army commander, has returned to Armenia and signaled plans to resume his political or military activities, citing the increased risk of renewed war with Azerbaijan.
“In a few days’ time, I will go to Karabakh because I see the main mission of my return there,” he told 7or.am on Thursday. “It’s up to the people to decide the rest.”
In an interview with the news website sympathetic to former President Robert Kocharian, Babayan also called for an urgent “modernization” of Armenia’s and Karabakh’s armed forces, saying that is vital for neutralizing the military threat from Azerbaijan.
He claimed that Armenia’s current leadership had grown complacent about that threat in the years leading up to the Azerbaijani military offensive launched on April 2. President Serzh Sarkisian’s administration failed to properly respond to Baku’s massive military buildup, he charged.
Babayan, Kocharian and Sarkisian are all natives of Karabakh who led the Armenian-populated region during its 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan. Kocharian is believed to have had a particularly close rapport with the once powerful general.
Babayan, 51, commanded Karabakh Armenian forces from 1993-1999 and became the unrecognized republic’s most powerful man after a Russian-mediated truce stopped the war in 1994. He was arrested in 2000 and subsequently sentenced to 14 years in prison for allegedly masterminding a botched attempt on the life of Arkady Ghukasian, the then Karabakh president.
Immediately after being set free in 2004, the former Karabakh strongman relocated to Yerevan where he set up there his own political party called Dashink (Alliance). He kept a low profile on the Armenian political stage following Dashink’s poor showing in 2007 parliamentary elections won by Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). He emigrated to Russia in 2011 for still unclear reasons.
“While living abroad during all these years, I forged many links and relationships with Russia’s influential military-political circles,” Babayan declared on Thursday.
Nagorno-Karabakh -- Ethnic Armenian soldiers walk in a trench at an artillery positions near the Nagorno-Karabakh's town of Martuni, April 7, 2016
He said he decided to return to Armenia and possibly Karabakh because of the April 2-5 hostilities along the Karabakh “line of contact” that nearly resulted in an all-out Armenian-Azerbaijani war.
Babayan claimed that Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev stepped up preparations for such an escalation after the collapse of his 2011 talks with Sarkisian in Kazan, Russia. “The Armenian side drew opposite conclusions from Kazan … At that time Armenia’s political leadership decided to concentrate on other issues,” he told 7or.am.
“We need to modernize our army and turn it into a 21st-century structure,” said the hardline general. “We must act only from the position of force in negotiations [with Azerbaijan.]”
The authorities in Yerevan have already announced that the Armenian military will receive more weapons earlier than planned because of the increased tensions on the Karabakh frontlines. They are specifically trying to speed up the delivery of new military hardware purchased with a $200 million Russian loan.
While criticizing the Sarkisian administration, Babayan stressed that he has “no enemies in the political arena.” “I do not intend to join any party,” he said. “But I can see that there are people who share my ideas. With their new thinking those people can have a serious impact on other political forces. And I hope that they will succeed,” he added without naming anyone.
In recent weeks, the Armenian press has been rife with speculation that Babayan could join a new opposition party set up by former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and other political figures widely regarded as Kocharian supporters. They have insisted that the ex-president is not connected with their party.
Kocharian also denied having such links through a spokesman on May 13. He has increasingly criticized Sarkisian’s policies and track record in recent years, fueling talk of his return to the political arena.
Earlier in May, Kocharian visited Karabakh and met with its leadership to discuss the fallout from the April 2-5 fighting.