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Review & Outlook - 10/06/2004

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Armenian News Network / Groong
October 6, 2004


On September 18, 2004, former Defense Minister of Nagorno Karabakh
Samvel Babayan was released from maximum-security prison in Shushi
after being pardoned by the person whom he had been convicted of
trying to assassinate in March 2000, Nagorno Karabakh President Arkady
Ghukasyan. Samvel Babayan had spent a total of 55 months in detention,
having been sentenced to 14 years during a trial in Stepanakert in
February 2001. The release of the former military leader and acclaimed
hero of the Artsakh war Samvel Babayan was not given an official
explanation. Unofficial sources, however, report that Mr.  Babayan
suffers from a variety of serious illnesses difficult to treat in
prison conditions. While coming against the backdrop of politically
sensitive developments in Artsakh, his amnesty does appear to have
been an act of clemency.

Despite the deliberately routine manner of the announcement of the
former general's release, - which came in the form of a regular notice
of a list of pardoned convicts by the Office of the President of the
Nagorno Karabakh Republic on September 17, - the enormity of the news
ensured its rapid delivery through the Armenian media and political
world, as well as equally rapid appearance of several conspiracy
theories connecting the timing of the release to either internal or
external political factors in Armenia and Artsakh.  Despite his fall
from grace and term in prison, Samvel Babayan's past achievements and
notoriety succeeded in keeping his memory alive all these years. The
pardon granted to the former general reminded the Armenians of both
the heroism of the liberation movement in Artsakh and the ignominy of
abuse of power and corruption in Armenia and Artsakh.


The 38-year old former holder of such titles as Commander of
Self-Defense Forces of Nagorno Karabakh, Minister of Defense,
Lieutenant General Samvel Babayan rose to prominence during the
military phase of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, in 1991-1994. The
struggle for self-government of Artsakh, which rekindled a national
revival in Armenia in 1988 totally uprooted the political environment,
leading to a complete change of regime and elites in Armenia, and by
extension, Artsakh. Among the former Soviet states, only the Baltic
States, Armenia and Artsakh, and since 2004, Georgia can boast of
having completely rid themselves of Communist apparatchiks in
power. The anti-Communist change of elites has injected new blood and
a new set of characters into the political systems of these countries,
some good, some bad, and some worse. Instability of the governments in
Latvia and Estonia, the recent impeachment of the Lithuanian
President, the deep-rooted corruption in Armenia and Georgia are all
at least partial functions of the inexperience and arrogance of the
new rulers. It is in this context that Babayan's meteoric rise and
fall should be considered.


The challenges facing Artsakh in 1991 - 1994, as the Soviet Union
collapsed and Azerbaijan decided to solve the Nagorno Karabakh
conflict militarily, were momentous: forging a unified army and chain
of command out of dozens of military units to repulse the Azeri
attacks; securing a land link to Armenia which, due to difficulties of
terrain and lack of air force and transport resources, was vitally
needed to break the blockade; and establishing a stable administration.
That Artsakh Armenians accomplished all of the above and captured six
Azeri regions in the vicinity of Karabakh by the time the cease-fire
was signed in May 1994 is testimony to their perseverance and the good
fortunes of having a military opponent that had incompetent commanders,
unmotivated soldiers, and an inadequate and unprepared political

Leadership was one area in which Karabakh Armenians did well in the
time of war. Samvel Babayan, whose civilian occupation before 1988 had
been as a car mechanic barely out of high school and military service
in the Soviet Army, did particularly well. Having joined a
paramilitary unit before the full-scale war broke out in 1991, he
quickly gained in stature, rising to command his own unit and leading
it ably and valiantly. Babayan was one of the commanders participating
in the capture of the fortress town of Shushi in May 1992, which was a
benchmark in the conflict. As unified military command began to be
established in Nagorno Karabakh in 1992 - 1993, Babayan rose to the
top, becoming the Commander of Self-Defense Forces in 1993, after his
predecessor Serge Sargsian left to become Armenia's Defense Minister.
In May 1994, Babayan in his capacity as Commander of Self-Defense
Forces co-signed the Moscow cease-fire agreement between Armenia,
Azerbaijan, and Nagorno Karabakh. Incidentally, his signature on that
agreement marks an implicit recognition of Karabakh's independent
status and came to be regretted and conveniently forgotten by


After the ceasefire, Karabakh moved slowly towards demilitarization.
In December 1994, Robert Kocharian was elected President of Karabakh,
while Babayan retained his control of the armed forces as Defense
Minister and Self-Defense Forces Commander. With Karabakh on war
footing, the Commander had considerable power and autonomy, with
little oversight from the civilian authorities. Rather, a tacit system
of checks and balances was maintained, just like in Armenia. As long
as Robert Kocharian was in power in Karabakh, Babayan was under
control, although he appeared to use his position to acquire land,
enterprises, tax and customs privileges for himself and his cronies.
Once Kocharian left to become Prime Minister of Armenia at the request
of then President Levon Ter-Petrossian in March 1997, Samvel Babayan
began to assert his influence over the civilian government in
Stepanakert in a more overt fashion, again evidently abusing his
office for personal aggrandizement.

For the time being, he was allowed to carry on his activities
unchecked.  Reeling from the fallout from the controversial
re-election of September 1996, the administration of President
Ter-Petrossian was too weak domestically to try to intervene in
Karabakh to curb Babayan's powers. Meanwhile, President Ter-Petrossian
attempted to regain his international and domestic legitimacy by
aggressively championing the two proposals put forward by the newly
reinvigorated Minsk Group in summer 1997. Opposed to the plan, but
loath to openly display disloyalty to President Ter-Petrossian,
Armenia's other top leaders - Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian, Prime
Minister Robert Kocharian, and National Security and Interior Minister
Serge Sargsian - urged Samvel Babayan to challenge Ter-Petrossian's
inner circle. In the famous joint session of National Security
Councils of Armenia and Artsakh in January 1998, it was Babayan who
was most vociferous in his opposition to Ter-Petrossian, who
eventually resigned and was replaced by Robert Kocharian.

Nevertheless, Babayan's machinations proved too embarrassing and
irritating for the government in both Karabakh and Armenia to take.
Even as the new government of Robert Kocharian publicly took on
corruption and tax and customs privileges enjoyed by Ter-Petrossian
cronies, it quickly emerged in the Armenian press that companies
controlled by Samvel Babayan had become leading importers of gasoline
and tobacco products in Armenia and that he used Karabakh Army
military trucks to transport the cargo. Babayan continued to meddle in
the government affairs in Karabakh, forcing then Prime Minister
Leonard Petrossian to resign in June 1998. Next, he recruited two
Armenian political parties, lavishly funding their parliamentary
campaigns in Armenia in May 1999 and securing third place in
parliament for their alliance, "Law and Unity." Such open display of
insubordination had to be addressed, and Armenia's new Prime Minister
Vazgen Sargsian and President Kocharian joined forces to restrain
Babayan's influence. A series of government reshuffles in Karabakh
began to diminish his powers, and he lost the Defense Ministry
portfolio in June 1999.


While the tragedy of October 27 and the subsequent chaos in Armenian
politics intervened, by December 1999 Babayan was forced to relinquish
his position as the Self-Defense Forces Commander. Kocharian's
precarious position in post-October 27 political environment did not
allow him to tackle the Babayan issue directly, leaving it to the
government in Karabakh under President Arkady Ghukasyan and the new
Karabakh Army leadership.  Apparently, Babayan decided to strike
first, launching an assassination attempt against Ghukasyan on March
22, 2000, which left Ghukasyan seriously wounded but alive. The
shoddily prepared and executed assassination attempt displayed the
toll the government's efforts had already taken on his organization.
At any rate, it was nothing more than an act of desperation on his
part; it is difficult to imagine any benefit Ghukasyan's assassination
might have given him.

Having played his final trump card, Babayan gave the pretext for the
Karabakh authorities to carry out an efficient and ruthless campaign
to dismantle his organization, by detaining, removing from office, or
pettily harassing hundreds of his loyalists and family members,
closing down or nationalizing his enterprises, and confiscating his
real estate. The government press printed a disturbingly long list of
cars, houses, and companies amassed by Samvel Babayan and his brother
Karen, whom he had elected as Mayor of Stepanakert. The official
investigation, accompanied by torture and beatings, and the subsequent
trial were conducted in the best of post-Soviet traditions, i.e.
without regard to credibility of charges, testimonies, or indictment,
or for the public opinion, which at any rate was mostly glad to see an
obviously corrupt individual removed from power, even if for the wrong
pretext. While Babayan's charges were disputed by his cronies in
Armenia (including the parliamentarians elected on his ticket) as well
as by his former comrades-in-arms, the trial concluded in March 2001
with a verdict finding Babayan guilty of directing the assassination
attempt, and sentencing him and a dozen other loyalists to different
terms in prison. The verdict also stripped him of his many government
decorations and ranks, and disenfranchised him. In a separate trial,
his brother Karen was convicted of abusing powers of office in the
Stepanakert Municipality, and sent to jail as well (he was released in
2002). While the verdict was not agreeable to many in Karabakh and
Armenia, the sadness over the fall from grace of a former Army
Commander and war hero was more universal.


Whatever the merits of the case against Babayan, there can be no doubt
about the positive effect his removal from power has had on the
political and economic development in Karabakh, and the international
credibility of its government. Babayan's rule was not the sole cause
for Karabakh's social-economic ills, nor did his internment put a
definite end to corruption and government abuse in Artsakh.
Nevertheless, freed from the hegemony of one person, Karabakh's
business and investment environment improved dramatically, allowing
Armenia's economic progress to spill over into Karabakh. Babayan's
fate provides an important precedent and stark reminder of what
unchecked usurpation of power can lead to; this lesson is undoubtedly
on the minds of leaders in Armenia and Karabakh. Another lesson was
that, unlike its neighbors Georgia and Azerbaijan, the Armenian
political environment, and by extension, that of Artsakh does not
tolerate a one-person rule.

Imprisoning a former leader and war hero for his transgressions may
not be a revolutionary idea, but it remains a novel one for
post-Soviet countries and statelets. Babayan's removal from office and
subsequent imprisonment provided an important test of durability and
maturity of government in Karabakh, as well as the strength of its
statehood. Contrast this with the continuing excesses and abuse by
President Smirnov in Transnistria, or Abkhazia's Ardzinba clan, or
Ajaria's Abashidze before he was removed by the central government in
Georgia (and even then allowed to escape rather than put on trial).
This is a lesson not entirely lost even on foreign observers, as a
recent article in The Economist shows. Another important contrast was
provided by Azerbaijan in the summer of 2004. After a group of
activists of the so-called Karabakh Liberation Organization, a group
of activists funded and encouraged by hardliners in the government,
disrupted a NATO PfP conference in a Baku hotel and attempted to
assault its participants for inviting Armenian officers to Baku, the
initial response of the government of Azerbaijan was proper. The
activists were arrested, put on trial, and given lengthy sentences for
sabotaging an event sponsored by NATO, an organization to which
Azerbaijan is said to want to adhere. After a public outcry, President
Ilham Aliyev quickly backtracked, publicly admonished the court for
the 'tough verdict,' and forced the appellate court to release the KLO
activists. The entire episode betrayed serious dilettantism of
Aliyev's government, and certainly did not inspire confidence in
Azerbaijan among its international partners.


Over the years, many rumors circulated about the pending release of
Samvel Babayan from his confinement in the maximum-security prison in
Shushi.  Unofficially, it became known that his health greatly
suffered after duress caused during the investigation, and he never
recovered. He is said to suffer from hepatitis and other ailments
which could not be treated in prison. A total deterioration of health
or death in prison would have unnecessarily made Babayan a martyr, and
his release for health reasons was an acceptable solution. The
government is obviously satisfied that he would not become a public
nuisance, and the terms of release include a probationary period and
continued disenfranchisement.

It was only natural that the early release of Samvel Babayan from
prison led to several conspiracy theories, suggesting a political deal
cut with the government, or linking it to the current phase of the
Nagorno Karabakh conflict settlement. The Armenian newspaper Iravunk,
close to Babayan's former political clients in Armenia, reported that
the former General had not appealed for a pardon (his mother did on
his behalf) and that no deal had been offered, or accepted. This
appears to be the case. It is unlikely that a formal deal between
Babayan and the Karabakh government has been made, or was even
necessary. Babayan's political and economic resources were entirely
uprooted four years ago, and he is no longer a serious threat to the
government or society. Even if he does attempt political activities in
Armenia after his recuperation, he cannot run for office and as ARF
leader Vahan Hovhanisian aptly pointed out, "there is no political
niche in Armenia" left vacant for Babayan. His political options are
limited too, as any attempt to rock the boat could lead to his repeat
internment. Nor will he make a difference on the Karabakh settlement
either way. A peaceful settlement is currently the domain of the
Presidents and Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, and while
contours of what is being discussed are gradually becoming clear,
there is nothing negative or positive that Babayan can contribute.

Nonetheless, Babayan's release comes at a particularly sensitive time
for domestic politics in Artsakh. Discontent and dissatisfaction with
the pace of democratic and social-economic progress in Karabakh
finally bubbled to the surface during the municipal elections in
August 2004. Significantly, independent candidate Eduard Aghabekian
was elected Mayor of Stepanakert, defeating the incumbent in the first
round and the well-funded ruling party candidate in the run-off.
Election of an opposition candidate to the Mayor's office in a major
city is no small achievement, unsurpassed even in Armenia.  As the new
Mayor assumed office, his victory appears to have emboldened both the
population and the legislature of Artsakh. When Major General Movses
Hakobian, acting Chief of Army Staff, was quoted by a group of
visiting journalists from Armenia as saying that Karabakh was not
ready for full democracy as long as war was not over, a special
session of the legislature was called to which he was summoned and
assured the parliamentarians that he was misquoted.

As the experience of the Saakashvili movement in Georgia shows, the
popular mandate over municipal government and the ability to win
elections allows building a political base for greater ambitions in
nationwide office. As Arkady Ghukasyan (like his political mentor
Robert Kocharian) is serving his second, and in principle, last term
in office, he has to increasingly take the public opinion into greater
account. Pardoning Babayan on his own accord, rather than being forced
to do it by political opponents, is a sound political move, even if
conditioned by Babayan's health problems.

In sum, Samvel Babayan's release appears to have been an act of
clemency by Karabakh's President Ghukasyan. Clemency in this case,
however, is a poisoned chalice for Samvel Babayan. As long as he was
in the Shushi jail, both his supporters and ill wishers viewed him
from a distance, if not with respect, then with certain appreciation.
They will now behold what is probably a sick and forlorn figure, an
untenable realization for the macho political culture in Armenia. That
will prove to be more difficult to recover from than the stigma of a
prison term or abuse of office.

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