Babayan interviewed by RFE/RL in February 2019. Image grab

Nagorno Karabakh’s war-time commander Samvel Babayan’s push for presidency has hit legal and political roadblocks ahead of 2020 election. After expressing interest in running for president last February, Babayan began collecting signatures to appeal for constitutional changes that would eliminate legal impediments that prevent him from running. He also warned of protests should his demands not be met.

Artsakh’s government agencies and political forces in turn warned Babayan and his supporters to stay within the law. It also appears that Babayan lacks the support of Armenia’s leadership, which seems inclined to back another presidential candidate, ex-prime minister Arayik Harutyunyan.

Earlier this month, chair of the Armenian parliament’s legal affairs committee and member of ruling majority Vladimir Vardanyan questioned the legality of Babayan’s proposal, which would give all Armenian citizens, including those living outside of Artsakh, the right to vote for or be elected Artsakh’s president.

On July 26, Babayan’s office denied reports that he would withdraw his presidential bid should incumbent president Bako Sahakyan resign. Babayan previously called for Sahakyan to resign immediately to ensure fair elections, describing his third transition term since 2017 as “illegal.”

After serving as Defense Army commander from 1992 to 1999, Babayan was charged with attempted assassination in which then president Arkady Ghoukasyan was wounded on March 22, 2000. After serving four and a half years in prison, Babayan was released on amnesty and has since moved to Yerevan and between 2007 and 2016 lived in Russia.

In 2017, Babayan was sentenced to six years in prison on arms smuggling charges that appeared to be motivated by then president Serzh Sargsyan’s fears of domestic terrorist threat against him. Babayan was released from detention after the “velvet revolution” of April-May 2018.

Babayan made a couple of forays into Armenian electoral politics before. In 1999 parliamentary election he supported the Right and Unity Bloc (led by Artashes Geghamyan), which came third with 8 percent. In 2005, Babayan found the Unification Party, which collected 2.4 percent of the vote in 2007 elections, without winning any seats. In 2017, Babayan backed the bloc led by former defense minister Seyran Ohanyan that with 2.1 percent of the vote also did not win any seats.

Judging by reports from Artsakh, Babayan’s following there is more substantial, potentially presenting NKR’s ruling establishment with the most serious political challenge since the early 1990s.