The de facto authorities in Nagorno Karabakh have reshuffled their senior military leadership in the wake of a public dispute between the Karabakh leadership and the new government in Armenia.
On December 14, the Karabakh de facto leader Bako Sahakyan dismissed the chief of the territory’s military forces, known as the Defense Army, Lieutenant General Levon Mnatsakyan. Mnatsakyan was replaced by his deputy, Major General Karen Abrahamyan, and was reassigned to a lesser position, Director of the State Service for Emergency Situations.
The dismissal followed several days of rumors; once it became official Mnatsakyan appeared to not be entirely satisfied. ”I don’t know why I was fired -- ask the people who fired me,” he told the news website news.am. “Probably they are not happy with my job, that’s why.”
Mnatsakanyan’s demotion came in the wake of unprecedented public bickering between the authorities in Karabakh and Armenia and led to speculation that Sahakyan was operating on orders from Yerevan. In the heat of parliamentary elections, Mnatsakanyan’s spokesman Senor Hasratyan criticized a member of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s “My Step” alliance for claiming that “the success of the people’s protests this spring was more important than the Artsakh liberation war.” (Artsakh is the Armenian word for Nagorno Karabakh; Armenians now control the territory after winning a war with Azerbaijan in the early 1990s.) Hasratyan hit back and criticized the attempt to diminish “the heroic battle of our thousands of martyrs.”
Mnatsaknyan did nothing to dispel the rumors that his dismissal was the result of that spat.
“I don’t know what was the exact reason, I'd rather not comment,” he told news.am. Asked specifically whether Hasratyan’s statement could have been the cause, he said “maybe.”
The leadership in Karabakh remains tied to the former regime in Armenia of Serzh Sargsyan. Karabakh’s heavy dependence on Yerevan has spurred speculation about political changes coming in Stepanakert, the de facto capital of Karabakh, in wake of the changes that have swept Yerevan this year.
While Karabakh and Armenia are formally separate, the informal ties between the two entities remain deep, said political scientist Vigen Hakobyan in an interview with Sputnik Armenia. “It was expected that sooner or later some changes in the framework of general revolutionary logic would also take place” in Karabakh, he said.
Many officials and commentators tried to downplay the departure of Mnatsaknyan, a well-respected career soldier. "The authorities, especially those in a conflict-stricken country, research carefully before making any personnel changes,” said former chief of general staff of the Armenian armed forces, Norat Ter-Grigoryants, in an interview with newspaper 168 Hours. “Changes are normal phenomena, rotation is normal, rotation takes place everywhere, including Russia."
The reshuffle takes place amid unusual public diplomatic activity around Karabakh. The same day that Mnatsaknyan was dismissed, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev tweeted an uncharacteristically positive statement regarding Karabakh. “The year 2019 will give a new impetus to the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement process.”
Two hours later, Nikol Pashinyan responded with a tweet of his own: “Peaceful resolution of #NagornoKarabakh conflict remains top priority for us. We will continue with the peace process for the benefit of regional peace & security. Resolution requires genuine efforts of all parties.”
Aliyev’s tweet suggests he is also ready for peaceful discussions, said Vladimir Karapetyan, chairman of the foreign relations committee of the political party Armenian National Congress. Karapetyan noted that a meeting between Aliyev and Pashinyan in Dushanbe in September appeared to have reduced military tension on the front lines. “I think, proceeding from this, the tweets show that militaristic appeals and statements have been replaced by a more relaxed style and in this atmosphere it will be possible to resume negotiations,” he told RFE/RL.
Ani Mejlumyan is a Yerevan-based journalist.
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Ani Mejlumyan is a reporter based in Yerevan.