Screenshot from a video released by Armenia's National Security Service, purporting to show an Igla missile smuggled by Samvel Babayan, a former security forces leader and key member of an opposition bloc.
The Armenian parliamentary election campaign took an unexpected turn on March 22, when agents from the National Security Service arrested Samvel Babayan, a former de facto defense minister of Nagorno Karabakh and a key ally of Seyran Ohanyan, one of the leading candidates. The NSS accused Babayan and two other Armenian citizens of smuggling a surface-to-air shoulder-fired Igla missile system from Georgia. A video released by NSS showed what appeared to be a missile packaged neatly and stacked behind some boxes in a garage.
Babayan is a member of the pre-election bloc led by Ohanyan, who replaced Babayan as Nagorno Karabakh’s defense minister in 1999 before serving as Armenia’s defense minister from 2008 until last October. The arrest comes amid increased tensions between the Ohanyan bloc and allies of President Serzh Sargsyan, suggesting that the arrest may be politically motivated.
Last week, the Ohanyan bloc held a campaign event in the village of Jrarat in Armenia’s Armavir province. The village chief attempted to call off the rally, brandishing a handgun, but was disarmed and roughed up, ending up at the hospital. Adding to the intrigue, this wasn’t just any village mayor, but a brother of General Levon Yeranosyan, the commander of Armenia’s police forces and known for his rough-and-tumble style when it comes to critics of the president.
Screenshot of a video posted by Arshak Zakaryan, a videographer who works with the Armenian Ministry of Defense, showing the portion of Haramı Düzü, or "forbidden plain," where 5 Azerbaijani soldiers died on February 25. White arrow points to the location of the bodies between the Azerbaijani (left) and Armenian (right) trenches.
At least five Azerbaijani servicemen were killed on February 25 in the worst flare-up of fighting over Nagorno Karabakh since last April. As per usual, the Armenian and Azerbaijani press services published versions of the incident at odds with one another.
The renewed violence comes as spring approaches and many fear an even more serious bout of fighting than last April's, in which more than 200 were killed, itself the worst fighting since the ceasefire was signed in 1994. “The likelihood of another outbreak of fighting at the level observed in April 2016, or higher, is significant,” wrote Carey Cavanaugh, the former United States chair of the Minsk Group that is attempting to resolve the conflict, in an analysis last week. “That clash roused nationalist sentiments, fed growing political discontent in Armenia, and showed Azerbaijan that it can regain some territory by force.”
The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry was first to report on the incident at about 10 in the morning of February 25, claiming that fighting broke out due to “large-scale provocations by Armenian forces” along the line of contact (LoC) between the two sides and that its forces suffered casualties but “forced the enemy to retreat.”
About 20 minutes later, the web site of Nagorno Karabakh’s armed forces published its statement, claiming that the fighting was a result of Azerbaijani incursions attempted overnight in the eastern and southeastern sections of the LoC and that bodies of some the Azerbaijani servicemen remained in the no-man’s land between the two sides. The Armenian side also claimed a build-up of Azerbaijani armor near the LoC.
A February 21 meeting of Azerbaijan's Security Council at which Azerbaijan's first vice president, first lady Mehriban Aliyeva, was introduced. (photo: president.az)
President Ilham Aliyev’s February 21 announcement that from now on his wife Mehriban Aliyeva will be the country’s first vice-president elicited a good deal of mockery, including the inevitable comparisons to the plotline of the TV series House of Cards.
But beyond the jokes, the move appears to be the result of a deadly serious tussle for power and influence within the ruling regime. While intra-government cleavages have existed since Aliyev succeeded his father in 2003, these tensions have intensified in recent years amid an economic crisis and a substantial drop in Azerbaijan’s energy revenues.
Aliyev first announced the plans to introduce the posts of multiple vice presidents last summer and they were duly approved in a referendum in September. The provision is an unusual one. Worldwide only half a dozen states have multiple vice presidents, Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor Iran among them, and the structure typically represents an effort to balance out various regime influences.
While it's not clear what inspired Aliyev to adopt the reform, the constitutional change was proposed in the aftermath of two dramatic events in the Azerbaijani regime’s internal affairs.
President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia and de facto president Baho Sahakyan of Nagorno Karabakh at a joint meeting in 2016. (photo: president.am)
On February 20, the de facto republic of Nagorno Karabakh will hold a referendum on a new constitution that would change the form of government from semi-presidential to a fully presidential. It would also, as a result, allow incumbent president Bako Sahakyan to retain his post beyond the current limit of two five-year terms.
There appears to be sufficient public support for the new constitution. Most local political groups have endorsed it, with 20 of 33 members of parliament voting in favor. Proponents of the change emphasize the security imperatives governing the transition, in particular after last April's heavy fighting with Azerbaijan. According to its advocates, a fully presidential system is better suited to managing the continuing military stand-off with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has taken similar steps in recent years, eliminating presidential term limits and, last year, extending each term from five to seven years, effectively reducing the frequency of electoral distractions.
The change in Karabakh also calls for presidential and parliamentary elections to be held concurrently every five years. Since the local parliament was last elected in 2015, that would mean a three-year transition period, during which the president would be chosen by the parliament, until the new system kicked in. Few doubt that the parliament would elect Sahakyan to the post or that he could seek re-election in 2020.
Unusually frigid February weather aside, Armenia's politics is thawing out of its traditional winter slumber unseasonably early as it looks ahead to an April 2 election that now appears far less predictable than it had just a couple of months ago.
As in four preceding parliamentary elections, the ruling Republican Party (RPA) is the presumptive favorite. But a half dozen alliances and individual political parties are expected to offer some real competition for seats in the new National Assembly. Pre-election buzz is real, horse trading is in full swing, and even long-disappeared politicos are reemerging to seek out places for themselves in the electoral lists.
What makes this election different is the new constitutional framework that calls for transition of executive power from incumbent president Serzh Sargsyan – who completes his term a year from now – to a prime minister selected by parliamentary majority. That ups the stakes in these elections, and the buzz is all around three individual politicians.
First, is businessman Gagik Tsarukyan, 60, who heads the Prosperous Armenia Party, the country’s second largest since 2007. Tsarukyan has fairly strong support among less well-to-do Armenians due mostly to his philanthropic activities and his man-of-the-people appeal. He has been endorsed by Armenia’s “first oligarch” Khachatur Sukiasyan, who was a key financial backer of ex-president Levon Ter-Petrossian’s 2008 campaign, and Stepan Demirchian, the main opposition candidate in 2003 elections, son of former Soviet Armenian leader Karen Demirchian, and the main presidential challenger in 1998. Perhaps most importantly, Tsarukyan is likely to be backed by former prime minister and RPA election manager Hovik Abrahamyan, who happens to be Tsarukyan's relative through their children's marriage.
Leading members of the Armenian Diaspora are looking to take on a greater role in how Armenia is run. In a recent full-page ad published in The New York Times, 23 Diaspora personalities from around the world appealed to their compatriots to make “a long-term commitment toward collectively advancing” Armenia.