By Astghik Bedevian
Samvel Babayan, a former military leader of Nagorno-Karabakh, signaled over the weekend his readiness to support Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian in the upcoming presidential election and made a blistering attack on the latter’s most formidable opposition challenger.
Babayan pointedly denied the widely held belief that he feuded with Sarkisian during and after the war with Azerbaijan. He insisted that Sarkisian, the first commander-in-chief of Karabakh Armenian forces, was not “expelled” from Karabakh in 1993 contrary to former President Levon Ter-Petrosian’s claims.
Meeting with university students in Yerevan on November 3, Ter-Petrosian said Sarkisian was forced to leave Karabakh and lived in exile in Moscow before being appointed Armenia’s defense minister in summer 1993. “Serzh Sarkisian was expelled from Karabakh, he had problems, serious disputes there,” he said.
Babayan strongly denied the claim, saying that he and Sarkisian jointly planned the capture in April 1993 of Azerbaijan’s strategic Kelbajar district sandwiched between Armenia and the disputed enclave. That operation was followed by the occupation of five other Azerbaijani districts in summer and autumn 1993.
Babayan went on to accuse Ter-Petrosian of trying to stop the highly successful Armenian offensive that predetermined the outcome of the Karabakh war. “I will reveal what happened in reality and why Serzh Sarkisian was sent [to Moscow,]” he said. “It resulted from the fact that the then political leadership of Armenia was committing a crime in Nagorno-Karabakh to prevent the liberation of territories.”
According to both Babayan and Ter-Petrosian, while in Moscow, Sarkisian negotiated important Russian arms deliveries to the Armenians. “He did a useful, very important job,” the ex-president told students, adding that Sarkisian also made a “good” defense minister. But that did not prevent Ter-Petrosian from declaring at a November 16 rally that his decision to promote Sarkisian and another prominent Karabakh Armenian, Robert Kocharian, to high-level government positions in Yerevan has proved to be a “disaster.”
Sarkisian responded to the attack by accusing Ter-Petrosian of seeking to “surrender” Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Babayan echoed the charge, saying that he continues to strongly disagree with Ter-Petrosian’s conciliatory line on the Karabakh conflict and will therefore not endorse the ex-president in the February 19 election. “That would be a betrayal of my ideas and mean seeking power at any cost,” he said.
By contrast, the former Karabakh strongman indicated that he may well endorse the Armenian premier if his Dashink party finds common ground with the latter. He admitted that he regularly meets not only opposition leaders but Sarkisian and Kocharian.
Babayan was speaking to journalists after a Dashink congress which approved his decision to merge his party into the Ramkavar Azatakan Party, a Diaspora-connected pro-Kocharian group which is not represented in Armenia’s parliament.
Babayan, 42, has claimed to be in opposition to Kocharian but has avoided closely cooperating with Armenia’s main opposition forces ever since being pardoned and released from a Karabakh prison three years ago. He had been sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment for allegedly masterminding the March 2000 attempt on the life of Arkady Ghukasian, then president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. He always rejected the charge as politically motivated.
A former car mechanic, Babayan became the commander of the Karabakh Armenian army in 1993. 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 governed by Kocharian