Armenian authorities claim to have thwarted a coup d’etat that was allegedly planned by hard-line nationalists opposed to major concessions to Azerbaijan in the conflict over Karabakh. Two prominent veterans of the Armenian-Azerbaijani war were controversially arrested last month and now look set to stand trial for calling for a violent overthrow of Armenia’s leadership. This development was followed by the discovery of what law-enforcement authorities say was an arms cache in the home of one of their associates.
The case, condemned as politically motivated by the Armenian opposition, appears to have exposed a sense of insecurity within the administration of President Robert Kocharian. Analysts believe that it stems, in large measure, from the prospect a long-awaited peace deal with Azerbaijan that would inevitably require painful concessions from both parties to the Karabakh conflict.
One of the arrested men, Zhirayr Sefilian, is known as a staunch opponent of the liberation of any of the seven Azerbaijani districts surrounding Karabakh that were fully or partly occupied by Armenian forces during the 1991-94 war. A Lebanese citizen of Armenian descent, Sefilian commanded a battalion during the war and held the rank of lieutenant-colonel when he retired from the military in the late 1990s to set up a pressure group campaigning for continued Armenian control of the occupied lands. The group, called Defense of the Liberated Territories, has regularly lambasted the Yerevan government for its readiness to trade the bulk of those lands for international recognition of Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan.
The other, less prominent detainee, Vartan Malkhasian, is a senior member of Fatherland and Honor, a small opposition party led by retired police officers. Malkhasian and Sefilian were arrested on December 10 shortly after jointly forming the Alliance of Armenian Volunteers (HKH), a new organization of war veterans hostile to Kocharian and sympathetic to his rivals. According to the National Security Service (NSS), they hatched a conspiracy to mount an armed rebellion against the government during next spring’s parliamentary elections. The Armenian successor to the KGB also rounded up and briefly detained some 30 rank-and-file members of the group.
Both suspects as well as their loyalists reject the accusations, which carry lengthy prison sentences. They have secured the backing of virtually all major Armenian opposition forces. In a joint December 19 statement, about two dozen opposition parties accused the authorities of launching a new round of “repressions” against their political opponents ahead of the forthcoming elections. The Fatherland and Honor leader, Garnik Markarian, went as far as to warn of armed resistance to possible further arrests of nationalist activists.
The authorities and the NSS deny any political motives behind the arrests, pointing to Sefilian’s and Malkhasian’s fiery speeches at a December 2 meeting in Yerevan of over a hundred HKH activists, which was apparently held behind the closed doors. The transcripts of the speeches, subsequently made public by the HKH, show that the two leaders implicitly accepted violence as a legitimate mode of struggle against the ruling regime. Sefilian in particular vowed to “crack the head of anyone who would dare to cede land” to Azerbaijan and scoffed at opposition attempts to force regime change with a campaign of peaceful demonstrations.
The NSS also announced on December 29 that it has found “unprecedented quantities” of assault rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and even shoulder-fired rockets in the village house of a close Sefilian associate. The security agency said the man, identified as Vahan Aroyan, was arrested “within the framework” of its ongoing inquiry into the alleged coup attempt.
Sefilian supporters dismissed the claims as a fraud, and some of them staged a demonstration outside the former KGB building in Yerevan on January 1. They insist that the arrested men never explicitly called for — let alone plotted — a violent regime change, an argument echoed by mainstream opposition politicians and some media commentators. “The way the arrests were made and the ensuing official statements and ‘explanations’ suggest that the authorities are alarmed,” the Yerevan daily Azg editorialized on December 13. “It is difficult to diagnose the reasons for this jittery state of mind for the moment.”
The most common explanation for this theory is that the Armenian leadership wants to further weaken the opposition ahead of the parliamentary elections and/or fend off possible protests against land concessions to Azerbaijan. Deputy Defense Minister Manvel Grigorian, the influential leader of the biggest organization of Armenian war veterans, sounded less than enthusiastic about such concessions as he wrapped up an annual conference of the Yerkrapah Union on December 9.
Under the peace deal proposed by international mediators and discussed by the parties over the past few years, Karabakh’s predominantly Armenian population would determine the disputed territory’s status in a referendum to be held after the liberation of at least five of the seven occupied Azerbaijani districts. Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev reported further progress towards the signing of a framework peace accord along these lines during their early December meeting in Minsk.
Highlighting his fears of a nationalist backlash, Kocharian indicated on December 15 that Yerevan will not sign or unveil any agreements with Baku before the Armenian elections expected next May. The Armenian opposition, he claimed, would exploit even the most pro-Armenian solution to the Karabakh solution in order to come to power. Government sources in Yerevan say the parties will make a fresh (and potentially decisive) push for peace in the second half of this year, before presidential elections due in both Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2008.
(Statements by the National Security Service, December 29, December 12, 2006; Aravot, December 20; RFE/RL Armenia Report, December 15; Azg, December 13)