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Karabakh Defends New Constitution

Karabakh Armenians reject claims that new basic law damages the peace process.
By Karine Ohanian
Voters in Nagorny Karabakh approved a new constitution for the unrecognised republic in a December 10 referendum, with local officials insisting it would bolster the democratisation of the territory.

The date of the vote was a symbolic one, occurring on the very day that the Armenians of Karabakh unilaterally declared independence from Azerbaijan 15 years ago. Human rights campaigner Karen Ohanjanian reminded IWPR that December 10 was also International Human Rights Day and said he wanted the new constitution to be “our visiting card before the world community, one proving our adherence to the principles of democracy, justice, equality, peace and goodwill”.

The day after the poll, Sergei Nasibian, chairman of the central commission for the referendum, announced that 78,389 out of 90,077 registered voters had cast their ballots, of whom 98.58 per cent had voted for the constitution and 0.7 per cent against.

However, the poll was condemned as illegitimate by the international community, with Terry Davis, secretary general of the Council of Europe, saying it “will not be recognised … and is therefore of no consequence”.

Karabakh is internationally regarded as being part of Azerbaijan, although it has been de facto separate for 15 years and is closely linked to Armenia.

More than 100 non-governmental international observers and journalists monitored the poll and gave it a positive verdict, saying it was held to a high international standard.

“I visited the village of Mehmana village in the Martakert District,” said Luciano Ardezi, a member of the International Human Rights League. “I must admit that the referendum was very well organised and took place in accordance with all international requirements. The voting was free and transparent.”

Most irregularities were technical in nature and concerned inaccuracies in voter lists, voting in closed booths and so on.

Much of the criticism from local observers was centred on the charge that the population was poorly informed about what they were voting on.

“Many people are not familiar with the text of the basic law,” said Naira Hairumian, an observer from the Open Society organisation.

Pensioner Svetlana Davidian told IWPR that she did not know the contents of the constitution, but voted for it anyway. “Clever people worked on this document,” she said. “Many of my acquaintances and I have come to vote for the constitution for a different reason - because this is yet another move to strengthen our independence, which we declared in 1991 when we were being bombed by Azerbaijan.”

Karabakh president Arkady Gukasian responded to the accusation that the vote had been ill-prepared by saying, “For the fifteen years that our state has existed, we’ve been constantly accused either of being too late or in too much of a hurry to adopt a constitution. Adopting a constitution is not an end in itself for us. In the past fifteen years, we have not only managed to defend the path chosen by our people in a difficult war, but we have also overtaken our neighbour Azerbaijan in terms of democratisation.”

Gukasian called the document “the best democratic constitution in the former USSR”.

In the run-up to the vote, there was speculation that Gukasian might use the new constitution to run for a third term as leader, when his second term of office expires next year, on the grounds that the law has changed. However, the president declared firmly that he had no intention of running again.

Irina Beglarian, an official with the foreign ministry, spoke approvingly of the unrecognised republic’s first constitution, saying, “I like the way it has a clear division of powers, that the prime minister is appointed by the parliament, that there are mechanisms to make the legal system work effectively, and, on the whole, that it has aspects of semi-presidential rule.”

Opposition member of parliament Gegham Bagdasarian was more equivocal. “Of course, the constitution is a step forward towards Karabakh’s democratisation,” he said. “But I think that the basic law is not as perfect as it could be. In particular, there’s no full set of mechanisms to restrain and counterbalance branches of power; there’s no clear basis for an independent legal system; and no constitutional court.”

Former Russian mediator Vladimir Kazimirov told the PanARMENIAN.Net news agency that although the vote would not be recognised, “it’s impossible to fully ignore the referendum. Of course, democratic procedures in Nagorny Karabakh are not faultless, as Azerbaijanis living in Nagorny Karabakh are not allowed to take part in them. But it won’t occur to anyone to refuse to recognise elections in [the Azerbaijani cities of] Baku or Ganje just because Armenians living there have not participated in them, will it?”

There was condemnation of the vote from the American, French and Russian co-chairs of the Minsk Group on the grounds that the vote interfered with the Armenian-Azerbaijani peace process at a delicate stage.

Azerbaijani foreign minister Elmar Mamedyarov said, “The referendum in Nagorny Karabakh damages peace negotiations.”

But Deputy Foreign Minister Masis Mailian countered,

“State building, both in the Nagorny Karabakh republic and in Azerbaijan, is not directly linked to the course of the peace process and it can’t hinder the attainment of peace in this region.”

Karine Ohanian works for Demo newspaper in Nagorny Karabakh.

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