ARMENIA: ARREST OF GOVERNMENT CRITIC ON COUP CHARGES PROMPTS CONCERNS
Dec 14 2006
As political tensions in Armenia rise ahead of next year’s
parliamentary elections, the arrest of a former Nagorno-Karabakh
military commander critical of the Armenian government’s talks
with Azerbaijan is raising fresh concerns about how the vote will
In a December 10 raid carried out by masked agents of Armenia’s
National Security Service (NSS) at a Yerevan restaurant, Zhirayr
Sefilian, an ethnic Armenian from Lebanon, was taken into custody on
charges of plotting a government coup. Sefilian, a former commander in
Armenia’s war with Azerbaijan over the predominantly ethnic Armenian
breakaway territory of Karabakh, is a decorated, hard-line war hero. He
is an outspoken opponent of any deal with Azerbaijan that includes the
return of territory currently under Armenian control. [For background
see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The press service of the NSS, the successor to Armenia’s Soviet-era
State Security Committee (KGB), has alleged that Sefilian "planned
to interfere in the upcoming political processes [2007 parliamentary
elections] with the use of force." Sefilian has been accused of
"conspiring to overthrow the constitutional order" under Article 301
of the Criminal Code. On December 12, a Yerevan court, in a closed
session, ruled that Sefilian could be jailed for two months while
the NSS further investigates the case.
Pro-opposition media outlets have reported that dozens of members of
Sefilian’s Union of Armenian Volunteers, a small nationalist group
opposed to concessions with Azerbaijan, were also temporarily detained
in separate raids.
Armenia’s main opposition parties see the arrest as a warm-up for
crackdowns against government critics prior to the country’s May 2007
parliamentary elections, or against those who would question the vote’s
conduct. In a December 11 statement, they accused the government
of resorting to Soviet-style repression to stamp out political
dissent. The government has not yet responded to the accusation.
The arrest has also set off alarm bells in nationalist circles,
which see Sefilian’s detention as linked to his position on the
Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations. Recent statements from the Organization
for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the talks’ mediator,
indicatedthat the basic principles for the resolution of the conflict
are close to being finalized. [For background see the Eurasia Insight
A December 5 statement from the OSCE after a meeting in Brussels
between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers urged both
countries to "double their efforts in the coming year to finalize
these basic principles as soon as possible."
Although possible breakthroughs in the negotiations are regularly
reported, this time a flurry of other reports about a possible deal
suggest that certain agreements are being reached, albeit behind closed
doors. Last month, for example, the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya
Gazeta added fuel to such speculation when it published details of
what it said was the peace deal currently being discussed by the
Armenian and Azerbaijani sides. According to that information, as
well as periodical leaks from both Armenian and Azerbaijani officials,
most of the seven Azerbaijani regions currently under Armenian control
surrounding Karabakh would be returned to Baku. A 40-kilometer wide
"corridor" through the strategic town of Lachin, now known as Berdzor,
would remain under Armenian control, connecting Karabakh to Armenia
Lending credibility to such speculation are a series of articles
published this summer by the local and international media,
including EurasiaNet, reporting that the area around Lachin is
experiencing a massive exodus of ethnic Armenians. [For details,
see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A few weeks after these reports
surfaced, Sefilian accused the authorities in Yerevan and Stepanakert
of pursuing a deliberate policy to clear the region in preparation
for a concessionary peace deal with Azerbaijan.
Speaking for the Protection of Liberated Territories organization,
Sefilian, who holds the rank of a retired lieutenant colonel, alleged
that the population of what is now called the Kashatagh region by
Armenians had declined to 7,500. In 2001, the number of settlers
in what are the Armenian-controlled Lachin, Zangelan and Qubatli
regions of Azerbaijan was around 15,000. A 2005 census, however,
put the population at just under 10,000.
Official sources speaking to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity
put the number as low as 6,000.
In November, other groups of Karabakh war veterans also made similar
accusations and threatened a campaign of civil disobedience if any
of these territories were returned to Azerbaijan. A written statement
by one such group, the Brotherhood of the Liberation Struggle, urged
all war veterans to unite "to save Armenia and Armenians and restore
justice in all spheres. The lands that we liberated are in danger
today. We urge all our compatriots . . . [to] stop our homeland from
falling into an abyss."
The Armenian newspaper Zhamanak Yerevan already sees a connection
between Sefilian’s arrest and official fears that Karabakh war
veterans might involve themselves in political life ahead of next
year’s parliamentary elections. "It was no coincidence that they
arrested Zhirayr Sefilian, a representative of the defiant section
of the freedom fighters, on the same day that they advised members
of the Yerkrapah Union [of Karabakh War Veterans] to stay away from
politics," the paper wrote on December 12.
In March 2006, the Iravunk newspaper reported that Sefilian had been
warned by the NSS to refrain from criticism of the government’s
position, and of Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, at the risk
of possible expulsion from the country. Another newspaper, Azg,
similarly quoted opposition politician Albert Bazeyan as saying that
"threats […] to deport Zhirayr Sefilian, former commander of [the]
Shushi battalion, is conditioned by […] recent tendencies in the
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement."
Undaunted by such threats, Sefilian upped the ante in July by calling
a press conference in which he declared that a "group of former
civil guardsmen" had "already agreed upon certain steps which will
allow us take real and drastic measures to avert vote rigging at the
coming parliamentary and presidential elections." He also spoke of
realizing a "power shift to avert the launching of a new military
conflict with Azerbaijan."
Following Sefilian’s arrest, the NSS issued a written statement stating
that it had irrefutable proof that the ex-commander was planning an
armed uprising to "prod the country’s opposition into staging violent
anti-government protests." No evidence to support this claim has yet
been made available, however.
Few analysts believe that the Armenian or Azerbaijani presidents
would risk a nationalist backlash over a deal ahead of sensitive
parliamentary and presidential polls in both countries during 2007
and 2008. However, with the lack of public evidence against Sefilian
and a recent assertion by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev that
negotiations are entering their final phase, suspicions about the
authorities’ actions continue to grow.
"I don’t exclude the possibility that he was arrested in connection
with the liberated lands, but I don’t think that any document connected
with Karabakh will be signed in the near future," one of Sefilian’s
associates, Armen Aghaian, stated on December 13.
Commented opposition parliamentarian Grigor Harutiunian, secretary
of the People’s Party: The government’s handling of the case against
Sefilian provides "the basis for some serious conclusions."
Editor’s Note: Onnik Krikorian is a freelance journalist
and photographer working for a variety of publications and
international organizations in Armenia. He has a blog at