In what amounted to a power-sharing deal, Nagorno-Karabakh’s new President Ara Harutiunian on Friday appointed two rival political figures, who challenged him in the recent presidential and parliamentary elections, to key positions in his administration.
Harutiunian said Masis Mayilian, who finished second in the presidential election, will continue to serve as Karabakh’s foreign minister while Samvel Babayan, the Armenian-populated territory’s former military leader, will take over as secretary of his security council.
Mayilian won more than 26 percent of the vote in the first round of voting held on March 31 amid serious concerns about the spread of coronavirus in Karabakh. Citing those concerns, he did not campaign for the run-off ballot held on April 14 and urged supporters to boycott it. As a result, Harutiunian cruised to a landslide victory in the race.
“We did not engage in political horse-trading,” Harutiunian said when he announced Mayilian’s appointment. He said they simply agreed to jointly shoulder “responsibility for our country’s future” in view of serious “challenges and dangers” facing it.
Harutiunian offered a similar explanation for his deal with Babayan which appears to be even more significant. In a live Facebook broadcast, he argued that the latter’s United Homeland bloc won the second largest number of seats in the Karabakh parliament also elected on March 31.
Harutiunian’s Free Homeland bloc won 16 seats in the 33-member legislature, falling just short of a parliamentary majority. With Babayan’s bloc holding 9 seats, the power-sharing deal should allow the new president to push through key bills.
The two men signed a “memorandum of cooperation” between their political forces in Stepanakert on Monday. “For our team the most important thing will be the implementation of our program so that there is public trust and we improve the socioeconomic situation and manage to achieve development in all spheres,” Babayan said at the signing ceremony.
According to Harutiunian, they made a “final decision” on Babayan’s appointment at a meeting held in Yerevan on Thursday. The 46-year-old Karabakh leader also met with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian on the same day.
Babayan, 55, has held no government posts in Stepanakert for the last two decades. The once powerful general was the commander of Karabakh’s Armenian-backed army during and after the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan. He was widely regarded as the region’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 two months after the “Velvet Revolution” that toppled Sarkisian and brought Pashinian to power.
After his release from jail, the former strongman hoped to run in the 2020 presidential election but was deemed ineligible because of not having lived in Karabakh for the past 10 years. He reportedly threatened to stage street protests last year after the authorities in Stepanakert refused to abolish this legal requirement for presidential candidates.
Babayan, who is known for favoring a hard line on the conflict with Azerbaijan, eventually agreed to participate only in the legislative elections. He unofficially supported Mayilian in the presidential race.
Azerbaijan has strongly condemned the Karabakh polls, saying that they run counter to Azerbaijani and international law. It says that that Karabakh, which had broken away from Azerbaijani rule in 1991, is governed by an “illegal regime installed by Armenia.”
By contrast, Armenia has defended the holding of the polls. It has cited a 1992 OSCE document saying that “elected representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh” should also participate in Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks.