Samvel Babayan, Nagorno-Karabakh’s former top military commander, on Monday criticized President Serzh Sarkisian for dismissing Armenia’s Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian in a government reshuffle completed early this month.
“I don’t think that replacing Seyran Ohanian at this stage was the right decision,” Babayan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) in an interview. “Of all members of the current military leadership I accepted [Ohanian] more than anyone else,” he said.
Babayan, who is critical of Armenia’s current leadership, led Karabakh’s Armenian-backed Defense Army from 1993-1999. Ohanian was the chief of the army staff during most of his tenure.
Babayan also criticized Sarkisian’s choice of the new defense minister, Vigen Sargsian, on the grounds that unlike Ohanian, the 41-year-old former chief of the presidential staff is a civilian.
“Today Armenia is in a state of war,” he said. “Only countries like France or Germany or other European states can afford [having civilian defense minister.] I don’t think now is the right time for Armenia to have a civilian defense minister.”
The retired Karabakh general claimed in that regard that Azerbaijan is gearing up for a “large-scale and prolonged war” with the Armenians. “Unfortunately, we don’t want to analyze that correctly,” he said.
Babayan, 51, became Karabakh’s most powerful man after a Russian-mediated truce stopped the Armenian-Azerbaijani 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, Babayan relocated to Yerevan where he set up there his own political party. He emigrated to Russia in 2011 for still unclear reasons.
Babayan returned to Armenia in late May, citing the increased risk of renewed war with Azerbaijan. He criticized the Sarkisian administration’s response to Azerbaijan’s massive military buildup in the years leading up to four-day hostilities around Karabakh that broke out in early April.
Babayan received a hero’s welcome from hundreds of Karabakh Armenian supporters when he arrived in Stepanakert in early June. He pledged to help boost Karabakh’s security, while claiming that he is not pursuing any “political objectives.” The Karabakh army’s current commander, General Levon Mnatsakanian, accused him of exploiting the April fighting for his personal ambitions.
Babayan insisted on Monday that he is still “not engaged in politics.” But he said he stands ready to back a political force that would share his views. He did not name any of the existing opposition groups among his potential political allies.