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Freeing of Karabakh Military Chief Stirs Debate

There’s heated speculation about the significance of the pardoning of an Armenian commander.
By Karine Ohanian

News of the release from prison late last month of Karabakh Armenian military leader Samvel Babayan came out of the blue and has provoked a lively debate within both Karabakh and Armenia – stoked by the fact that Babayan himself has refused to comment on his unexpected freedom.


Babayan has a mixed reputation amongst Armenians. When the Karabakh war ended in 1994, he was widely lauded as a military hero and the commander of the entity’s Armenian army. After the war, however, he became not only the military leader but the most powerful man in Karabakh overall, controlling its government and economy. His accumulation of more and more power for himself and his despotic tendencies made him many enemies.


Then in 2000 he was accused of organising the assassination attempt on Karabakh president Arkady Gukasian in which Gukasian was wounded. In January 2001, Babayan was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment.


Ever since he went into jail, there have been rumours on the eve of every national holiday that Babayan would be freed. But his actual release came as a surprise. On September 17, Gukasian published a decree saying 13 prisoners in Karabakh had been fully pardoned and 22 partially pardoned. Amongst those named was Babayan.


Babayan himself did not stay in Karabakh for long but left shortly afterwards for Yerevan. People close to him say he intends to leave the former Soviet Union to have treatment for his health, which suffered while he was in captivity.


Neither Gukasian nor any other Karabakh officials have commented publicly on the pardon. A spokesman in the presidential press service told IWPR only that Babayan had been freed because of his “service to the motherland” and because he had served more than a third of his sentence, which made him eligible for release.


For a prisoner to be pardoned he must first write a letter formally request to be forgiven. There has been much speculation in Karabakh as to whether such a letter was written. The Aravot newspaper reported that the letter was written not by Babayan himself, but by his mother. Aravot also reported that the former commander had been banned from holding office in Nagorny Karabakh for another five years.


Iravunk newspaper in Yerevan reported that the decree had been signed on September 2, but that the authorities in Armenia and Karabakh spent two weeks discussing what should be the terms of his release. Iravunk said that in the end no final agreement was reached.


With nothing been said in public, Karabakh Armenians have been actively debating among themselves whether the right decision had been made to set Babayan free.


“The law is the law,” said policeman Ashot Gabrielian. “He ought to have served out his full term. I think that by pardoning Babayan, the president simply wanted to improve his ratings with the public and show he is a humane and forgiving ruler.”


A former soldier Leonid Sogomonian said of Gukasian’s decision, “He simply understood that Babayan had more positive virtues than he made mistakes.”


“I think that the pardon was not on the wishes of Gukasian himself but came as a result of pressure from opposition forces in Armenia,” said another veteran Vardges Gasparian. “But all the same I would like to believe the former commander did not spend so many years in prison in vain and that he is aware now of all those actions he committed which were unacceptable.”


Another subject of lively discussion is what Babayan’s freedom means for the unrecognised republic now and whether the former defence minister has a political future.


“I think that a definite condition of the pardoning of Babayan was that Gukasian made him a demand – his freedom in exchange for his neutralisation as a political figure,” said businessman Artur Karapetian.


“Maybe this means war?” said pensioner Valena Grigorian. “They didn’t just release him for nothing. That means they need him again.”


A local analyst in Karabakh ,who asked not to be named, said, “It’s unlikely that Gukasian was acting under pressure from one group or another. Actually I think Babayan’s release is connected with the latest twists in the Karabakh peace process.


“I don’t think that Samvel Babayan will make himself known as a political figure again in the near future. He needs time to look around and get used to the situation because after all a lot has changed here in recent years. But I don’t think that he will disappear without trace either.”


Karine Ohanian is a freelance journalist in Nagorny Karabakh.