Challenges Facing Forthcoming Elections in Karabakh

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Karabakh, or the Republic of Artsakh, its more recent official title, has developed into a self-contained, independent political entity, with all the attributes of a full-fledged state. It has held orderly and frequent transparent elections to maintain its governance. In addition, although global political structures have not endowed the republic with official recognition yet and continue to issue statements about their refusal to acknowledge the election results, they understand deep down that Karabakh is not a breakaway rebel territory under the rule of warlords.

And thus, the people and the state of Karabakh take themselves seriously and continue to rule the republic under a constitution based on democratic principles.

The Armenian people in Armenia and Karabakh organize local and national elections meticulously, inviting international observers to monitor the election processes and issue their opinions.

On March 31, 2020, legislative and executive branch elections are set to be held in Karabakh. At this time, 27 political parties have put forth their candidates for 33 seats in the parliament. There are 14 presidential candidates in the running. The campaign was officially launched on February 26.

Karabakh maintains the presidential system, unlike Armenia which switched to a parliamentary one.

Karabakh is a contested territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group has been holding negotiations since the May 14, 1994 ceasefire took hold to try to settle the conflict.

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For the government in Yerevan, Karabakh is Armenia, period. For Azerbaijan, it is an integral part of its national territory, where Armenians can live under “the highest level of autonomy,” if they lay down their arms. Unfortunately, Azerbaijan cannot offer, let alone deliver, that “highest level of autonomy,” because 49 percent of its population comprises a diverse and restive minority body vying for independence.

Therefore, elections in Karabakh will have regional ramifications, but above all, they will have an intra-Armenian impact.

The Velvet Revolution in Armenia in 2018 developed a new political paradigm for dealing with Karabakh. Many political parties in Armenia lamented that the revolution did not reach Stepanakert. Therefore, not only heated rhetoric but also political actions were needed, according to those forces, for similar change in Karabakh. The radical political party Sasna Tsrer even threatened to organize armed raids to bring about that change. They were deterred by Karabakh war hero Vitali Balasanyan’s warning.

But indeed, the forces defeated in Armenia have found a refuge in Karabakh. Serzh Sargsyan’s and Robert Kocharyan’s cronies made highly-visible appearances  in Karabakh. Even the ARF, after its election debacle in Armenia, regrouped in Karabakh.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s job is cut out for him. He came to power through a revolutionary fervor and today he cannot control nor contain that feeling among his followers. The revolutionary logic among the latter is that when the young administration has achieved full control in the country, it should wipe out the remaining vestiges of the old regime completely, with no exceptions.

The prime minister, after attaining power, has realized that he cannot proceed while ignoring international legal norms. Pashinyan himself was very careful to be elected by the old parliament. A case in point is also the current crisis with the Constitutional Court. His angry partisans do not understand why the leader of the revolution does not simply sack seven members of the court and thumb his nose at the warning from the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. Instead, Pashinyan is trying to skirt the crisis created by the forced housecleaning by organizing a referendum on April 5.

For a long time, the old regime in Armenia was tolerated because people understood that there was a war on the border. And the leaders of the regime became untouchable, until the people reached the breaking point. As long as their rule lasted, the old regime looted the country.

The same situation was replicated in Karabakh, where war heroes exploited their favored statuses to rob the country. And the people’s cautious approach has outlasted the revolution in Armenia. The Karabakh situation was — and still is — more fragile.

There are signs that the new elections will rectify that in Karabakh.

Officially Armenia has taken a hands-off policy to allow fair and transparent elections there. It has promised to invite international monitors to observe the election process. As well, Yerevan has ostensibly no favorites among the 14 candidates for president (including two women). However, last August 5 Pashinyan was in Karabakh where he set the parameters for the new president, namely no candidates who trained with the old regime in Armenia. Last week, when the security councils of the two republics held a joint meeting, the prime minister spoke of the unity of the two republics. Following that session, the Karabakh Minister of Defense Lt. Gen. Karen Abrahamyan was sacked and was replaced by Gen. Jalal Harutyunyan.

No one doubted that Pashinyan’s signature was on that order.

Despite all these actions, Armenia has taken a neutral stance on the elections, although the latter has reasons to watch carefully the elections and political developments. Although all the candidates vow to work in synch with the Yerevan administration, there is talk that the proponents of the old regime may somehow band together in Stepanakert and create a revanchist force. Even more dangerous is the talk of placing Karabakh under Moscow’s tutelage. The proponent of that plan is Samuel Babayan, an adventurous war hero and political activist who was pushed out of the election process through legal actions. Nonetheless, he has formed a new political party, the Revolutionary Party of Artsakh, to remain in the game.

Although all the candidates in Stepanakert claim to be on good terms with Pashinyan, a gradation of those relations is apparent. Even candidate Vitali Balasanyan, who has engaged in public altercations with Pashinyan, believes that he maintains friendly relations with him.

Vahan Bandasyan, the head of the United Armenia Party, is the most vociferous and radical opposition leader, and seems to be trailing in the polls.

The front runners at this time are Arayik Harutyunyan, the former prime minister, Masis Mayilyan, the current foreign minister, and Ashod Ghoulyan, the speaker of the parliament.

Harutyunyan had formed his Free Motherland Party in June 2006 and won 10 seats that year. He is considered to be one of the oligarchs who has contributed tremendously toward the economic development of the republic. He may win the election on bread-and-butter issues.

Mayilyan, who serves as foreign minister in the current cabinet, is running as an opposition candidate. He is backed by the Nor Artsakh Alliance.

Ghoulyan, the most articulate among the candidates, is heading the Popular Party of Artsakh.

Haik Khanumyan is the head of the National Renaissance Party.

Out of 27 parties participating  in the elections, 20  have been formed recently. Two alliances have grouped the newly-formed parties. They have no history nor a track record of any political activity and they will fade away as soon as the elections are over.

There are true political forces in Karabakh and they have been recruiting younger elements to complement their ranks with experienced elements.

Transparent and orderly elections will further enhance Karabakh’s political profile in the region, particularly in the aftermath of Azerbaijan’s recent elections, which were fraught with bribes, corruption and violence.

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