Three retired army generals have added an element of intrigue and uncertainty to political life in Armenia with their separate decisions to stand in the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 12. Two of them resigned from the military for that purpose last month and are widely regarded as pawns in a complex game played by Armenian President Robert Kocharian’s likely successor, Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian. What propelled the third, more ambitious ex-general to the political arena is less clear.
All three relatively young men rose to prominence during the 1991-94 war in Karabakh when they commanded Armenian military units that successfully fought Azerbaijani forces for control of the disputed territory. One of them, Samvel Babayan, was promoted to the rank of general and appointed commander-in-chief of the Karabakh Armenian army at the age of 26. He was among the top Armenian and Azerbaijani officials who put their signatures on a Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement that stopped the war in May 1994.
The truce enabled Babayan to quickly establish himself as Karabakh’s most powerful man, dominating local politics and controlling much of the local economy. Babayan’s star began to fade in late 1999 when he lost a bitter power struggle with Arkady Ghukasian, president of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, and was dismissed as Karabakh army chief. A few months later, he was arrested and charged with masterminding a botched attempt on Ghukasian’s life. Babayan flatly denied the charges as politically motivated but was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Babayan’s early release from jail in September 2004 took many Armenians by surprise, fuelling speculation that he was set free in return for agreeing to help Kocharian deal with his political opponents. Whatever the truth, the mustachioed former car mechanic moved to Yerevan and became involved in Armenian politics immediately after his liberation. In 2005, he set up a party called Dashink (Alliance), which claims to be in opposition to the Kocharian administration. The party, mistrusted by some leaders of the Armenian opposition, has since been aggressively expanding across the country with an eye toward the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Babayan, now 40, openly threatened last year to use force against anyone who would try to steal votes from Dashink. He also set up arguably the most exciting head-to-head contest in the race by deciding to run against a brother of Sarkisian, also a native of Karabakh, in a constituency in southeastern Armenia. Whether this challenge is the result of a long-running feud between Babayan and Sarkisian or Kocharian’s reported efforts to hold his powerful defense minister in check is not clear.
Things became even more uncertain after newspaper reports earlier this month said the Armenian authorities are considering barring Babayan from running for parliament on the grounds that he has not lived in Armenia for the past five years, something which is required by law. This was followed by the brief detention of several Babayan aides by the National Security Service, the Armenian successor to the KGB, on suspicion of illegal arms possession. Babayan, who was also reportedly interrogated by NSS officers, has since refused to talk to journalists.
Another general who has entered the fray, Artur Aghabekian, has much in common with Babayan. He, too, is a Karabakh Armenian who was a prominent field commander during the war with Azerbaijan. But unlike the former Karabakh strongman, Aghabekian has always been a figure close to Sarkisian. From 2000 until last month, he served as deputy defense minister, overseeing Armenia’s growing military cooperation with NATO, particularly the United States.
Aghabekian was relieved of his duties and discharged from the Armenian Armed Forces in order to contest the polls on the ticket of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, also known as Dashnaktsutiun). (He has long maintained close ties with the nationalist party represented in Kocharian’s government.) The development prompted talk of Sarkisian offering to have the ARF nominate Aghabekian for the post of defense minister in the event of his victory in next year’s presidential election. That would presumably be a strong incentive for the influential party to endorse Sarkisian’s presidential bid. Aghabekian has pointedly declined to deny these rumors.
The third general-turned-politician, Seyran Saroyan, seems to harbor more modest political ambitions, despite having been a key member of the top army brass. The 39-year-old, who cuts an intimidating figure with his burly physique and reddish beard, resigned as commander of Armenia’s Fourth Army Corps last month to register his candidacy in a single-mandate constituency south of Yerevan. Saroyan holds sway in the area covering the town of Echmiadzin and surrounding villages together with another top army general and deputy defense minister, Manvel Grigorian. The two men are also the top leaders of the Yerkrapah Union, a politically influential organization uniting thousands of Armenian veterans of the Karabakh war.
Saroyan has already been endorsed by the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), of which Sarkisian is the de facto leader. According to some observers, his participation in the elections results from the party’s decision to ditch a disgraced HHK parliamentarian who is seeking reelection in the same constituency while being prosecuted on charges of fraud and hooliganism. But others suggest that the ruling regime has simply found a way to remove Saroyan from the military and thereby isolate Grigorian. The latter opposes major Armenian concessions to Azerbaijan and has a cordial rapport with some opposition leaders.
While Saroyan and Aghabekian are all but assured of parliamentary mandates, Babayan’s political future is rather uncertain. His and his party’s electoral performance should either turn him into a major actor on the Armenian political scene or spell an end to his ambitions. It might also shed more light on the character of the current relationship between Kocharian and Sarkisian.
(Aravot, March 14; 168 Zham, March 8, 13; RFE/RL Armenia Report, March 13; Zhamanak Yerevan, January 27)