The Battlefield of Armenia’s Domestic Politics Has Moved to Karabakh

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Everyday a dramatic development takes place in Armenia’s domestic politics but all hell broke loose this weekend with the release of Robert Kocharyan, Armenia’s second president, who was incarcerated pending his trial. He stands accused of subverting Armenia’s constitution during the riots of March 1, 2008, when 10 people were killed, including two police officers.

The trial sessions had become a circus with the demonstrations and cheers of Kocharyan fans and jeers of his opponents. The trial sessions became also topics of heated discourse in the news media. It is ironic that no one has been questioning why there is so much attention on Kocharyan, when the Velvet Revolution had targeted Serzh Sargsyan (Merjeer Serjin — Refuse Serzh).

Indeed, the latter is free and active at the helm of his decimated Republican Party and planning his political comeback.

The Velvet Revolution had come and swept away the old guard monopolizing the political scene in Armenia. Some groups also tried to export the revolution to Karabakh (Artsakh) but cooler heads prevailed there, realizing the delicate and precarious situation in that territory. But that did not deter all the losing parties in Armenia’s last parliamentary election from trying their luck in Karabakh, by building their own power bases there. The movement began with a convention of the ARF (Armenian Revolutionary Federation, Dashnaktsutyun), which held its convention last February in Stepanakert, where the outgoing leader of the party, Hrand Markaryan, did not hesitate to state in his parting salvo that his party will wipe away Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s Social Contract Party from power and take over the government to steer it away from its current course.

The ARF returned to Karabakh for a second time in May for a political powerplay by organizing a forum and inviting many other groups, including former prime minister and presidential candidate Vazgen Manukyan, who presided over the forum, the purpose of which was to generate public opinion to force the conclusion of a treaty between Armenia and Karabakh, featuring the first as a guarantor of the security of the latter. Never mind that the idea did not gain much traction, but that was beside the point, because the organizers intended to send a message that the party was alive and well even after losing the parliamentary elections.

Next on the stage was the former president, Serzh Sargsyan, who delivered his first political speech since his ouster from power.

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Another phase in this chain of events is the gnashing of teeth of the Sasna Tserer militant party, which has been claiming that as long as the current political elite in Karabakh is not toppled, the Velvet Revolution could not be considered complete.

Under the shadow of this invasion of political forces from Armenia, the Karabakh people have been minding their own domestic politics, preparing for the next presidential election. As the current president, Bako Sahakyan, has declared that he will not seek the office again, four candidates have emerged.

At this point, the major contenders seem to be Arayik Harutyunyan, the former prime minister of Karabakh, who has developed agricultural infrastructure there, enjoying the support of the population. Harutyunyan, although popular, has not been involved in the Karabakh negotiations.

Samvel Babayan has been a Karabakh war hero, but his political career is checkered with opportunistic actions which have landed him in jail twice, in both Karabakh and Armenia.

Valery Balasayan is another hero who can check Babayan’s adventurous impulses.

The last candidate is Ashod Ghoulyan, the current speaker of parliament. Although a solid politician, his popularity and chances of success are low.

In all Karabakh elections, the discreet hand of the government in Yerevan has been in action. Thus far, that influence has been subtle.

But back to Kocharyan’s release from jail. It looks like it was the last straw which broke the camel’s back, by exposing the simmering rift between the governments in Armenia and Karabakh.

The seeds of this discord had been sown by Armenia’s first president, Levon Ter-Petrosian, who during his entire career in political opposition has claimed that the Karabakh clan has usurped power in Armenia, building up resentment among Armenia’s population. That resentment was expressed at the Kocharyan trial when the judge ordered the end of his incarceration before the former’s trial. As Kocharyan’s supporters cheered the decision, his opponents began blaming President Sahakyan and former President Arkady Ghukasyan, labeling them as “traitors” and “Turks.”

Many believed that the Velvet Revolution had brought about the end of the Karabakh clan, yet with Kocharyan’s release, they suspect future mischief will be afoot once again from that front.

The decision itself has led to many diverse interpretations and heated debates; some people believe that the decision was the result of the freedom of the courts from political pressure, courtesy of the current administration. Others interpret the situation to mean that Pashinyan has lost control of the runaway judiciary system. Still others opine that the decision was made by the old corrupt judges left over from the previous regime.

But all the indications lead one to believe that the entire issue was the outcome of political pressure from Moscow. Indeed, President Vladimir Putin had sent congratulatory birthday messages to Kocharyan while the latter was in prison, indicating his displeasure over the plight of his former ally and personal friend. There is no doubt that the Russian president must have personally pleaded Kocharyan’s case during his meetings with Prime Minister Pashinyan.

And ever since Pashinyan came to power, friendly relations with Russia have failed to improve, no matter how hard the Armenian prime minister tries.

Mr. Putin cares less about how much mayhem may have been created by the leaders of the previous corrupt regime. From his perspective, the Velvet Revolution had all the trimmings and methods of the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, and as a result, Russia’s staunch friends were being traumatized.

There must be some truth to that perspective, because in this day and age, regime change and the toppling of governments are not always achieved by guns. Modern techniques are much more refined. Any head of state who is in the way of a major power is first vilified and demonized through powerful social media. That task is completed by the “charitable” mission of the likes of the Soros Foundation and hired guns in the press.

Certainly pressure from Putin’s front on Pashinyan brought to bear Kocharyan’s release. Pashinyan needed only a legal fig leaf to set Kocharyan free. That legal leaf was provided by Bako Sahakyan and Arkady Ghukasyan, former comrades-in-arms of Kocharyan and Sargsyan during the independence war in Karabakh, who undertook the mission anticipating insults to be hurled at them at the courthouse.

The rift between Armenia and Karabakh will lead to a disastrous course which should be avoided at all costs.

There is no doubt that outside forces may have been involved in breaking  the Armenian resolve to hold on to Karabakh at all costs.

All these internecine quarrels are taking place under the watchful eyes of Ilham Aliyev, who has been holding murderer Ramil Safarov’s symbolic ax to strike our people in Karabakh and Armenia.

Ever since Pashinyan came to power, his supporters have been itching to establish transitional justice, to be able to garner sweeping powers to settle scores with the leaders of the previous administration. The turmoil created with Kocharyan release provided that opportunity to the prime minister to act. On May 20, he ordered all the courts to close down and he took to social media to announce his decision.

Armenia’s Constitution (Article 163-2) forbids the establishment of special courts to prevent the executive from wielding absolute power. The next session of the parliament will debate how to circumvent that issue  and move on. All dictators in history have spoken on behalf of the people and assumed power on behalf of the people, seldom using them for the good of the people. This situation inspires some fears as the prime minister already has under his control the executive and legislative branches of the  government and now he will add the judiciary, to give him absolute power. There is a wait-and-see attitude to find out where this power consolidation will lead.

In our history, the empire of Tigranes the Great collapsed with the collusion of his son with his Roman enemies. In 1375 the Cilician Kingdom fell to the Mameluks, because the quarrels of the princes had weakened the kingdom. Those cases have to put us on guard regarding a repeat performance on Tuesday, May 21.

Only a look over the Azerbaijani border may sober up all political hot heads, promoters of dissension and myopic politicians. The view of the Azeri military build-up on our border should be sufficient cause for caution and the use of wisdom.

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