Samvel Babayan, Nagorno-Karabakh’s former military leader, has expressed his desire to run in a presidential election that will be held in the Armenian-populated territory next year.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service, Babayan said he will start collecting next month signatures of local residents in a bid to circumvent a legal provision that bars him from running for Karabakh president.
“I realize that I still have a role to play there,” he said. “I’m not finished and will try to do everything to be of use [to Karabakh.]”
Babayan, 53, was the commander of Karabakh’s Armenian-backed army during and after the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan. He was widely regarded as the unrecognized republic’s most powerful man at that time.
Babayan was arrested in 2000 and subsequently sentenced to 14 years in prison for allegedly masterminding a botched attempt on the life of the then Karabakh president, Arkady Ghukasian. He was set free in 2004.
Babayan lived in Russia for five years before returning to Armenia in 2016. He was again arrested in Yerevan in March 2017 on charges of illegal arms acquisition and money laundering which he strongly denied.
The arrest came about two weeks before Armenian parliamentary elections. Babayan unofficially coordinated the election campaign of an opposition alliance challenging then Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian.
A Yerevan court sentenced the once powerful general to six years in prison in November 2017. Armenia’s Court of Cassation overturned the verdict in June 2018, ordering Babayan’s release from prison. The decision came more than a month after Sarkisian was overthrown in a popular uprising led by Nikol Pashinian, the current Armenian prime minister.
Around the same time Bako Sahakian, Karabakh’s president, announced that he will not seek reelection when his current term in office ends in 2020. Sahakian has been in power since 2007.
Under Karabakh law, only those individuals who have resided in Karabakh for the past 10 years can participate in the 2020 presidential election. Babayan does not meet that requirement.
Citing another legal provision, the former strongman said that he can overcome that hurdle if his presidential candidacy is backed by thousands of Karabakh Armenians. “We will start the signature collection in March and then see if the authorities comply with or ignore what the constitution stipulates,” he said.
Asked whether he thinks the current Karabakh leadership will let him enter the presidential race, Babayan said: “At my penultimate meeting with Bako Sahakian, I said: ‘Let’s draw a line and forget everything: all the conflicts and problems.’ It seemed to me that they must realize that Armenia and Karabakh are now in such a difficult situation that it makes no sense to keep having grudges, settling scores or feuding with one or another person.”