Democracy on the Move in Karabakh


After much hesitation, pondering and debate, the elections were finally held in Artsakh (Karabakh) on March 31. These marked the sixth presidential and seventh parliamentary elections there.

The hesitations were fully justified, given the pandemic plaguing the globe. Miraculously, no case of coronavirus had officially been reported there until a week after the elections, with a first case on April 7.

Karabakh is a small disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but it is located in one of the world’s political hotspots. Therefore, any action in that tiny enclave has an impact on the Armenian world, as well as on the regional and global spectrum. As a result, reactions from all quarters need to be brought into consideration to assess the significance of those elections.

There were 14 presidential candidates, 10 political parties and two alliances.

The numbers and the fragmentation of political groups were unprecedented. However, they indicated that democracy is on the move in Karabakh. The electorate was highly motivated, given the tense military situation in the region, compounded by the fear of the pandemic.

Many pundits had predicated a low turnout. They were all disproved as more than 73 percent of registered voters participated in the exercise of their political will.

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For the first time, the presidential candidates participated in a debate, in another sign of democratic progress. The debate, although a welcome sign of democratic progress, was on a primitive level.

By contrast, during the recent fraudulent and unfair parliamentary elections in neighboring Azerbaijan, many of the opposition leaders and dissidents remained behind bars.

Many political quarters, which routinely refuse to recognize Karabakh elections, certainly took mental notes about the contrasting scenarios.

As a result of the elections, five political parties and two alliances have won seats in the 35-seat parliament. The Free Fatherland party, headed by Arayik Harutyunyan, won 16 seats and the United Fatherland party, led by Samuel Babayan, won 9 seats. Incidentally, Babayan was banned from running as a presidential candidate because of not meeting legal residency requirements.

The Justice Party, headed by Vitali Balasanyan received 3 seats, as did the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, while the Democratic Party, headed by the former speaker of parliament, obtained 2 seats. The alliance headed by Masis Mayilyan, the former foreign minister, did not win any seats in the parliament, although he was the second highest vote getter, netting 26 percent, to qualify for the run-off against Harutyunyan.

Apparently, there was some horse-trading behind the scenes between Mayilyan and Babayan to help each other in the presidential and parliamentary elections, respectively. Now that the first phase of the elections is over, with no seat for Mayilyan in the parliament, he is left out in the cold. As far as Babayan is concerned, that deal has outlived its usefulness.

The complexion of politics around Karabakh is manifested in the reaction of election monitors, the government of Armenia, regional and major nations and international political entities.

The international monitors, who had planned to participate, could not travel. Instead, there were 90 monitors representing two NGOS, the Union of Informed Citizens and Transparency International. There was much debate in the press as to why the government had funded those two groups and not others. Particularly, the participation of Daniel Ianissyan was questioned as he is regarded as a polarizing political figure with his own agenda. He has been accused in the media of being one of the known “grant eaters.” One needs to be aware that foreign philanthropic groups investing in Armenia and Artsakh have their own interests, which may not line up with those of the recipients.

Following the elections, the monitors confirmed that the vote was held under free and fair conditions; only minor violations were observed, which were not enough to influence the outcome of the elections.

Armenia’s Foreign Ministry qualified the elections as “free and fair, in line with high democratic standards.”

For Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, the elections similarly were of “high quality.”

By contrast, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry criticized the elections even before Azerbaijan and called on the international community to refuse to recognize the results.

Azerbaijan, in its turn, termed the elections as illegal, additionally resorting to a military incursion, on the very day of the elections, in the Tavoush region of Armenia, injuring several Armenian soldiers as well as a 14-year-old boy.

The European Union issued a special statement criticizing the elections. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) followed suit, stating that the “so-called general elections cannot predetermine the outcome of Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks mediated by the OSCE.”

The statement by OSCE is ironic, to say the least, because when its representatives visit Karabakh, they have no other party to negotiate with but the official leadership elected by those same elections.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry had a milder reaction, emphasizing the peaceful negotiations.

Armenia’s ally, Russia, was also critical. In addition, the Collective Security Treaty Organization headed by Moscow, through its General Secretary Stansilav Zas, reprimanded both Armenia and Azerbaijan, for the latter’s military incursion into Armenia.

In view of this kind of equivocating politics by Russia and its sponsored entities, many in Armenia question the usefulness of that alliance for Armenia.

By contrast, the NATO alliance has a firmer and more partisan politics, defending its members under any condition. A case in point was Turkey’s recent aggression against Syria, which was criticized by most of NATO member countries. Yet, during the confrontation between Turkish and Russian forces in Idlib, Syria, resulting in 33 Turkish casualties, NATO stood by its member officially and condemned Russia unequivocally.

Following the elections on March 31, Armenia’s President Armen Sarkissian congratulated both presidential candidates who are to participate in the runoff election on April 14. Arayik Harutyunyan had almost received 50 percent of the vote to be elected outright but some ballots were qualified as invalid. Therefore he received 49.26 percent of the vote, requiring a runoff.

During the election campaign, the Pashinyan administration had adopted a hands-off policy, although it had every right to wield influence toward the outcome of the elections as the military guarantor of Karabakh’s security and major contributor to its economy.

That stance was dictated by the prudent policy of preserving Karabakh’s stability. Indeed, with Baku’s bellicose policy, the pandemic and Armenia’s regional isolation, Artsakh can little afford political upheavals.

But the less velvety wing of the revolution in Armenia imprudently continued its rhetoric of advocating for the elimination of the old guard in Artsakh. The targets were Vitali Balasanyan and to a lesser extent, Harutyunyan. Both had collaborated with the previous regime in Armenia but continued to enjoy popularity in Armenia.

Harutyunyan is considered to be an oligarch and painted with the same brush as some of his counterparts in Armenia who had plundered the country. Harutyunyan, however, is an entrepreneur who has contributed significantly to Karabakh’s economy and he maintains close relations with Pashinyan’s administration.

The vocal critics of the recent elections are members of the Sasna Tserer radical party, with its most notable supporter historian and statesman Ara Papyan and of course, the losers of these elections. The Revolutionary Party of Artsakh recently organized a rally in Stepanakert, demanding to annul the results of the elections.

For Masis Mayilyan, who expected to fare better at the ballot box, the results became a cause for sour grapes. He has called on his followers to boycott the runoff elections, but has not officially informed the Central Election Commission that he is dropping out of the race. Mayilyan, who had not expressed any concern about the coronavirus before the elections, all of a sudden has resorted to smear tactics, warning the voters about the dangers of the virus.

Interestingly, Iannisyan has changed his tune and has become more critical of the government’s positive assessment of the election results, stating: “I am afraid they could not make any other statement because of the international situation.”

Yes, indeed, the international situation must be a legitimate concern for any prudent statesman, worried about Artsakh’s future.

Mayilyan is fishing in muddy waters. His ban on entering Russia is already defining his politics, which in this case is converging with that of Iannisyan. His vanity and personal ambitions are blurring his vision, leading him to ignore the dangers of instability for Karabakh.

As Armenia’s enemies and even friends have joined in a chorus to criticize the elections, any destabilization domestically will play into the hands of the enclave’s enemies.

As of this writing, with only one proven case of coronavirus in Karabakh, and those villagers who were in contact with the latter placed into isolation, it appears that the path for the runoff still is clear.

This is an opportunity for the people of Artsakh to demonstrate to friends and foes that they are determined to build a democratic society and for the historic day it can join Armenia, de facto and de jure.








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