Nagorno-Karabakh’s parliament has overwhelmingly voted against constitutional changes that would allow Samvel Babayan, the Armenian-populated territory’s former top military commander, to run in a presidential election slated for March.
The Karabakh constitution stipulates that only those individuals who have resided in Karabakh for the past 10 years can participate in the election. Babayan has lived mainly in Armenia and Russia since 2004.
Babayan expressed a desire to participate the forthcoming presidential race after being released from a prison in Armenia in June 2018. He subsequently collected over 21,000 signatures in support of a referendum on the abolition of the legal hurdle to his presidential run and presented them to the Karabakh parliament this summer. Such a referendum cannot be held without the parliament’s consent.
The Karabakh parliament rejected the petition on Thursday by 24 votes of 4, with one abstention. Hayk Khanumian, an opposition lawmaker who voted for the referendum, criticized the decision. But he acknowledged that that the constitutional changes sought by Babayan could not have come in to force before the March 31 presidential ballot even if they had been approved by lawmakers and put on the referendum.
“There is one good thing about this initiative,” Khanumian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “Campaigning for the initiative awakened people, especially in rural areas. The number of signatures [collected by Babayan] is a clear indicator of strong popular demand for change in Artsakh.”
Babayan did not comment on the parliament’s rebuff as of Friday afternoon.
Early this year the once powerful general reportedly threatened to stage street protests in Stepanakert if he is barred from running for president. But he has kept a low profile in the last few months.
Babayan, 54, 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, Arkadi Ghukasian. He was set free in 2004.
Babayan lived in Russia for five years before returning to Armenia in 2016. He was arrested in Yerevan in 2017 on charges of illegal arms acquisition and money laundering which he strongly denied. The arrest came 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 Karabakh general to six years in prison in November 2017. Armenia’s Court of Cassation overturned the verdict in June 2018 less than two months after the “Velvet Revolution” that toppled Sarkisian.
Even without Babayan’s participation, the upcoming election promises to be the most competitive and unpredictable in Karabakh’s history. At least four local political heavyweights have already entered the fray. They include Arayik Harutiunian, a former prime minister leading Karabakh’s largest parliamentary party, parliament speaker Ashot Ghulian and Foreign Minister Masis Mayilian.
Also running for president is Vitaly Balasanian, another retired general who is extremely critical of Armenia’s current political leadership. Balasanian is also at loggerheads with Babayan.
Bako Sahakian, the incumbent president who has ruled Karabakh since 2007, is not eligible to seek another term in 2020.