Considerable speculation is surrounding a new Armenian political party established by the former army commander of the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Samvel Babayan. Armenians tend to see Babayan as a living legend, but the issues his party has adopted are anything but middle-of-the-road. Among them: interim sovereignty overseen by an international organization and provisions for refugees to return to Nagorno Karabakh. Babayan himself has called for the restoration of some occupied Azerbaijani territories to Azerbaijan.
The founding congress of the Dashink ("Alliance") Party, which took place on November 10, was a prominent event in Armenia's political life. Babayan, as the then 28-year-old Commander of the Karabakh Defense Army, signed the May 1994 cease-fire agreement with Azerbaijan that brought military hostilities to an end over Nagorno-Karabakh. The document is one of the few signed by both Azerbaijan and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
Babayan, now 39, has been adamant that he has no personal political ambitions in setting up Dashink. Rather, in official statements, the party claims a host of "liberal" goals: revitalization of the political system via a changeover in the ruling elite; creation of an independent judicial system; investigation of human and civil rights violations; electoral system reform; and the break-up of numerous economic monopolies that the party claims exist.
Babayan's position on Nagorno-Karabakh, however, promises to provide greater cause for controversy. In an interview published by the Aravot daily in March 2005, he stated that some of the seven Azerbaijani territories around Karabakh that are occupied by Armenian forces "should be returned to Azerbaijan for the sake of peace." Dashink's platform calls for interim sovereignty for Karabakh under the auspices of an international organization; voluntary resettlement of refugees and displaced persons in Karabakh; resolution of the territory's status by referendum, and encouragement of economic development in the breakaway region.
In an online interview with the daily newspaper Azg, Babayan also stated that Armenia could eventually build friendly relations not only with Azerbaijan, but with Turkey, which broke off ties with Armenia in 1993 in support of its ally, Azerbaijan. The three countries' pro-European orientation, which Dashink also espouses, provides the basis for this belief, he said.
For a former warlord, these arguments are seen as surprisingly moderate. Many other veterans of the 1988-1994 Karabakh war with Azerbaijan strongly oppose the return of refugees. Dashink's policy positions are, in fact, similar to provisions discussed as part of the so-called Prague process, the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, overseen by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group.
Babayan's relationship with the current Armenian government and Nagorno-Karabakh leadership is an even more delicate problem, however. The former military commander spent four and a half years in jail for the attempted assassination of de facto Nagorno-Karabakh President Arkady Ghukasian in 2000. Babayan was released on appeal in September 2004, and has denied any involvement in the attempt on Ghukasian's life.
In an October 25 interview with the Haykakan Zhamanak daily, Babayan stated that he has met twice in 2005 with Armenian President Robert Kocharian, once with the influential Defense Minister Serge Sargisan and once with his alleged victim, de facto Nagorno-Karabakh President Arkady Ghukasian. As a result, many local experts suppose that Babayan and his new party enjoy support by both Yerevan and Stepanakert, the Karabakh capital.
The emphasis placed by the party on building a broad political coalition as evidenced by Dashink's name has reinforced those suppositions. "We have come to unite rather than to disrupt political forces," Babayan said in the interview with Haykakan Zhamanak. "We are ready to cooperate with any party, either pro-government or opposition."
For the time being, Babayan and his party have obstained from strong criticism of the authorities."If you want, I can berate the president of the Republic, but it is not what I have come here for," Babayan told journalists after the Dashink congress. Dashink did not express a position on the November 27 constitutional referendum. Babyan himself has said that he will not run for president, but that his party plans to take part in the 2007 parliamentary elections.
Most political party leaders both opposition and pro-government -- attended the Dashink congress in apparent hopes to win favor with Babayan. In the late 1990s, Babayan served as a de facto strongman in Karabakh, with enough power to sway Armenia's own political affairs by lending his support to individual political parties during the 1998 parliamentary elections. Notably, though, three prominent political parties Prime Minister Andranik Margarian's Republican Party, and the opposition Popular Party (led by Stepan Demirchian) and Hanrapetutiun (Republic) Party (led by Aram Sargsian) did not send representatives to the Dashink congress.
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.