Armenian Authorities Arrest Former Separatist Karabakh ‘Defense Minister’ on Eve of Parliamentary Elections; Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 45


On March 22, the Armenian National Security Service (NSS) arrested three persons, including Samvel Babayan—a paramilitary unit commander during the Karabakh War (1988–1994) and “defense minister” of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), from 1994 to 2000 (, March 25). Coincidentally, the date of the arrest coincided with the date of Babayan’s arrest in 2000, when he, together with 15 other persons, was charged with an attempt to assassinate Arkady Ghukasyan, the de facto “president” of the NKR. Ghukasyan was seriously wounded in the attack. At that point, Babayan was sentenced to 14 years in prison, but he was released after only 4.5 years, moved to Armenia, and founded an unsuccessful political party. Soon thereafter, he moved to Moscow. But after spending almost a decade in Russia, he returned to Armenia in mid-2016, just weeks after the so-called “four-day war” in Karabakh between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces (see EDM, May 18, 2016). He denied plans to join any political party, but said he saw people who shared his ideology (, May 26, 2016).

More recently, Babayan openly expressed support for one of the political factions that participated in Armenia’s April 2, 2017, parliamentary elections—ORO, formed jointly by the Unity Party and the Heritage Party (both led by former Armenian foreign ministers) with the participation of former defense minister Seyran Ohanyan. The latter man began vehemently criticizing the government immediately after his resignation, in October 2016. During the election campaign, Babayan soon started supplementing his statements in support of ORO with warnings that “provocations” against the bloc might potentially result in bloodshed (, March 22). Before the bloc’s assembly in February, some of its representatives had themselves already warned about possible “provocations,” as there were speculations about a criminal case having been opened against Ohanyan in connection with corruption in the army during his ministerial tenure (, February 24).

According to the NSS, Babayan was involved in an illegal attempt to acquire a Russian-made Igla man-portable surface-to-air missile launcher with a 9M39 missile (, March 22). His lawyer, Avetis Kalashyan, insists that the NSS lacks sufficient evidence to indict. While Babayan himself considers the accusations groundless, he has not suggested, to date, that the legal actions against him were politically motivated (, March 29). This contrasts with the ORO, which immediately claimed that the criminal charges against Babayan had a political dimension, putting that in the context of the election campaign as a provocation against the bloc (, March 22). Later on, ORO’s spokesman declared the bloc considers Babayan a political prisoner, even though he himself does not (, March 29). ORO claimed it was being targeted for its critical attitude toward the government.

From ORO’s point of view, Babayan’s arrest is part of a government-led propaganda and physical intimidation campaign. Earlier last month, for example, several ORO activists were beaten, and one of them was shot and wounded by the brother of the deputy head of the National Police (, March 15). Moreover, during the election campaign, representatives of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) have notably also been involved in several other violent incidents. A Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP) activist was stabbed; others from the PAP, as well as supporters of a current coalition member, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), were beaten; there have even been fights among the supporters of various RPA candidates (, March 6).

The latter may seem particularly strange, but it is an outcome of the new election code. The old mixed system of proportional representation and majoritarian single-member districts has now been replaced with a combination of national and district party lists. Under the old system, government-affiliated businessmen or their proxies used to run in single-member districts without having to compete against one another. But the recently adopted system encourages intra-party competition among candidates within districts. As a result, district lists included several pro-government candidates as well as local gang leaders capable of buying votes or intimidating voters    (, February 14;, March 3).

The RPA has used all means—the election code biased in its favor, financial resources, the media, large-scale vote buying, and so forth—to secure its hold on power this election cycle (, January 19, 2016;, April 25, 2016;, March 31, 2017). Indeed, President Serzh Sargsyan, who also comes from the RPA, carefully encouraged and supported a second-place winner—the Tsarukyan bloc, which includes the PAP and some fringe parties—so that the dissatisfied electorate could be divided and manipulated (, October 5, 2016). According to the preliminary results announced on April 3, the RPA received 49.12 percent of the vote, and the PAP—27.32 percent; the Way Out bloc and the Armenian-nationalist ARF also passed the threshold to enter the legislature (, April 3). The ARF is a potential RPA ally, should the latter need to form a coalition. The ORO bloc failed to pass the vote threshold. Also left outside the next parliament were pro-government party Armenian Renaissance (formerly the Country of Laws Party), the Armenian National Congress (ANC—whose leader, former president Liven Ter-Petrossian, proposed a “peace now” program, arguing that a quick compromise with Azerbaijan is required), as well as the Free Democrats Party, the only Armenian party advocating for leaving the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

Some observers expected that, following the April 2 vote, Armenia would see a repeat of its traditional post-election pattern: with complaints against the announced results resulting in mass protests and clashes, possibly even shootings. And this time, the ORO bloc was predicted to play the leading role (, March 21). In fact, some of ORO’s leaders had previously attempted to start a mass movement, tapping into the social momentum created by an armed attack on a police compound in Yerevan in July 2016, when 31 armed men took control of a large supply of weapons for two weeks. That standoff with Armenian law enforcement ultimately left three police officers dead (, July 21, 2016;, July 24, 2016). Therefore, Babayan’s arrest may have been a preventive measure aimed at containing any possible post-election troubles. He is currently in pre-trial two-month custody. It remains to be seen if the state prosecutors will uphold the charges, or whether they might later be dropped should the post-election period and the formation of the new cabinet go smoothly. Other parties and blocs may still attempt to challenge the RPA’s victory by legal means. But since the RPA controls all of the country’s courts and law enforcement agencies, it is unlikely to face much trouble.