Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 235

On December 17, Karabakh president Arkady Gukasian dismissed Lieutenant-General Samvel Babaian from the post of commander of Karabakh’s defense forces. The Karabakh military command, Karabakh’s branch of the powerful political-paramilitary organization Yerkrapah [Country Defender] and nearly half of Karabakh’s legislature had been on Babaian’s side, bracing for a face-off with Gukasian. Mutually threatening communiques were exchanged. Armenia’s Defense Minister, Lieutenant-General Vagharshak Harutiunian, rushed to Stepanakert from Yerevan to enforce the dismissal of Babaian and the appointment of an acting successor–Colonel Movses Hakopian.

Babaian led the Armenian forces–from both Karabakh and Armenia proper–during the final, victorious stage of the war against Azerbaijan, seizing substantial Azerbaijani territories beyond Karabakh. Since the war Babaian has been credited with continually improving the Karabakh army’s combat readiness in his dual capacity as defense minister and commander of the armed forces. Earlier this year, a struggle over the distribution of political power and economic spoils erupted between Babaian’s and Gukasian’s camps (see the Monitor, June 30, July 6). Armenia’s strongman Vazgen Sarkisian intervened on Gukasian’s side, forcing Babaian to resign as defense minister of Karabakh and replacing the pro-Babaian prime minister of Karabakh with one–Anushavan Danielian–loyal to Sarkisian and Gukasian. The October 27 assassination of Sarkisian, however, weakened Gukasian’s position and ushered in another round of confrontation in Karabakh.

On December 14, a brawl erupted outside the government building in Stepanakert between Babaian and Prime Minister Anushavan Danielian and their respective retinues; Danielian was hurt in the melee. Armenia’s Defense Ministry used this opportunity to move decisively against Babaian.

Had Babaian lost power at any time between 1994 and now, the prospects of peace with Azerbaijan might have improved. Babaian is on record as advocating the annexation not only of the Lachin district but also of the Kelbajar district of Azerbaijan as a condition for making peace. He could have used his command post and his prestige in order to become a rallying point for the party of war. At the present time, however, Babaian is an ally of Armenian President Robert Kocharian in the common struggle for political survival against the heirs of the slain strongman Vazgen Sarkisian–that is, against the pro-Russian leadership of Armenia’s Defense Ministry and the interest groups represented by Vazgen’s brother, the new Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian.

Kocharian’s recent efforts to reach accommodation with Azerbaijan under United States auspices have added to the tensions between him and the Sarkisian camp. The struggle is being waged over both power and policy; and, as Babaian’s position suggests, the dividing lines over the issue of Karabakh and over political and economic interests by no means coincide. Democratization in Armenia and peace with Azerbaijan are the two casualties of this situation (Noyan-Tapan, Snark, Azg, Armenpress, Armenian Television, December 15-18).