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THE RISE AND FALL OF SAMVEL BABAYAN Armenian News Network / Groong October 6, 2004 SUMMARY 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. BACKGROUND ON SAMVEL BABAYAN 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. WARTIME LEADERSHIP 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. 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 Azerbaijan. FROM WARLORD TO STRONGMAN 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. AN END TO A CAREER 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. LESSONS OF FALL 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. RELEASE FROM PRISON 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.