STEPANAKERT (RFE/RL) — Samvel Babayan, Nagorno-Karabagh’s former top military commander, received a hero’s welcome from hundreds of supporters in Stepanakert on Sunday as he returned to Karabagh after years of self-imposed exile.
Babayan, who headed the Karabagh Armenian army from 1993-1999, travelled to Karabagh following a series of statements criticizing the Armenian military response to the April 2 Azerbaijani offensive.
The hardline general was greeted by about a thousand people when he laid flowers at a Stepanakert memorial to Karabagh Armenians killed during the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan. The crowd, quite large by Karabagh standards, then escorted him to his old apartment, applauding and chanting “Samvel!” The impromptu procession blocked traffic through major streets in the Karabagh capital.
“I will do everything in my power to ensure that your security is properly protected,” Babayan told the supporters at the war memorial. But he did not clarify how he will do that, again insisting that he has no political ambitions.
Speaking to journalists, Babayan said he is ready to hold “discussions” with Karabagh’s political and military leaders. But he stressed that no meetings with them have been scheduled yet.
Babayan, 51, became the unrecognized republic’s most powerful man after a Russian-mediated truce stopped the Armenian-Azerbaijani war in 1994. He was arrested in 2000 and subsequently sentenced to 14 years in prison for allegedly masterminding a botched attempt on the life of Arkady Ghukasian, the then Karabagh president.
Immediately after being set free in 2004, the former Karabagh strongman relocated to Yerevan where he set up there his own political party called Dashink (Alliance). He emigrated to Russia in 2011 for still unclear reasons.
Babayan returned to Armenia late last month, citing the increased risk of renewed war with Azerbaijan. In ensuing interviews with media outlets sympathetic to Armenia’s Karabagh-born former President Robert Kocharian, he called for an urgent “modernization” of Armenia’s and Karabagh’s armed forces. He also claimed that President Serzh Sarkisian’s administration failed to properly respond to Azerbaijan’s massive military buildup in the years leading up to the April 2-5 hostilities along the Karabagh “line of contact.”
Armenia’s ruling Republican Party and Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian dismissed Babayan’s criticism.
Babayan’s comeback fueled media speculation that he could join a new opposition party set up by former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and other political figures widely regarded as Kocharian supporters. “I do not intend to join any party, but I can see that there are people who share my ideas,” the retired general said on May 26 without naming them.
Meanwhile, a Karabagh opposition parliamentarian and strong Babayan backer, Hayk Khanumian, was attacked and hospitalized on Monday. He suffered a broken nose and ribs as a result.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) from his hospital bed, Khanumian said that moments after he left the parliament building in Stepanakert several men wearing military uniforms forced him into their car and drove him to a nearby village where he was badly beaten up.
Derenik Malkhasian, a journalist with Civilnet.am online television, said he witnessed the incident in Stepanakert. He said some of the uniformed attackers confiscated his mobile phone after he started filming them.
A spokesman for the Karabagh police initially denied the beating. Nevertheless, several police officials visited the outspoken politician in a local hospital later in the day. The police did not launch a formal criminal investigation afterwards.
The four main factions of Karabagh’s parliament were quick to condemn the attack in a joint statement. But they stopped short of alleging political motives behind it.
Khanumian wrote on Facebook on Monday evening that the attackers forced him to sign a statement and make a video confession to the effect that “yesterday’s events were wrong.”
“They beat up and forced him to write that I paid him to organize yesterday’s gathering,” Babayan said after visiting the oppositionist in the hospital.
Khanumian walked alongside Babayan during Sunday’s procession. He also announced that he and his associates will launch a campaign for Babayan’s re-appointment as commander of the Karabagh Defense Army.
Babayan disavowed that campaign on Monday, however. “I don’t want to become defense minister,” he said.