One of the most controversial candidates in next year’s de facto presidential elections in Nagorno-Karabakh has been disqualified.
Under current law, the president of the self-declared republic must have lived there for the previous 10 years. That would disqualify Samval Babayan, who is a former commander of the de facto republic’s armed forces but for the past 10 years has lived mostly in Armenia and Russia.
Babayan’s backers gathered nearly 20,000 signatures in support of changing that law, but the proposal came up for a vote in the Karabakh parliament on October 31 and was soundly defeated, with 24 of the 29 members voting against it.
The party with the most seats in parliament, Free Homeland, voted against the bill; the party’s leader, Arayik Harutyunyan, is also a candidate in the presidential elections, scheduled for April 2020.
“Parliament has to consider not only the 20,000 who signed [the petition] but also those who intentionally refrained,” said Ashot Gulyan, speaker of parliament.
Others argued that eliminating the residency requirement would weaken the territory’s independence. “The proposed amendments would damage the sovereignty of Nagorno-Karabakh,” said Armen Sargsyan, head of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation – Dashnaktsutyun faction, adding that “this is the shortest way for unification with Armenia.”
The head of the opposition National Revival party, Hayk Khanumyan, voted for the amendments, arguing that 20,000 was a significant number of signatories and that “the bill should have gone to the Supreme Court, and if the court ruled that it was constitutional it should have gone up for a referendum.”
Babayan announced his plan to start gathering signatures for his initiative in February. At the time, he suggested that the current authorities may block his efforts. “We will start collecting signatures in March, after which it will be clear whether the authorities are following the constitution or ignoring it,” he said.
Babayan has tried to position himself as an ally of the new government in Armenia, led by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. In 2017 Babayan was controversially sentenced to a six-year prison term for weapons smuggling, but after Pashinyan came to power last spring, he was amnestied.
After his release, he suggested that it was Yerevan who would call the shots in determining the future of Karabakh’s politics. “There is one state, Armenia, which has to decide for itself,” he told journalists in June 2018. “The power has changed, they have to decide who they see there, what they do. If they see that I’m the one to be there, I have no problem.”
Thus far, though, Yerevan has declined to endorse Babayan.
Tigran Grigoryan, an analyst and member of the National Revival party, said Babayan is likely to continue to fight. "Babayan will probably urge his supporters to boycott the presidential elections, which surely won't be a smart decision," he said in a tweet.
The stakes in next year’s elections are high for Yerevan, as the authorities in Karabakh – mostly loyal to the former Armenian regime – have had an icy relationship with Pashinyan. Another leading candidate, former head of the National Security Council Vitaly Balasanyan, is deeply hated by the new Armenian political elite.
Another candidate, current de facto foreign minister Masis Mailyan, may be more to Yerevan’s taste.
Next year’s election will be between “the regime and the future,” said analyst Hrachya Arzumanyan, in an October 16 interview with Armenian news website Civilnet. “Arayik Harutyunyan and Vitaly Balasanyan are the past that people in Karabakh need to get past. Masis Mailyan is the chance to do that.”
Ani Mejlumyan is a reporter based in Yerevan.