Karabakh Election Closely Fought

Observers say that official Karabakh Armenian candidate not assured of victory.

Karabakh Election Closely Fought

Observers say that official Karabakh Armenian candidate not assured of victory.

There are two favourites amongst the five candidates competing in the the July 19 election for the leadership of Nagorny Karabakh, making this ballot the first genunine contest since the end of the war over a decade ago

Both men come from within the governing elite but one is the official candidate while the other is positioning himself as a potential reformer.

Bako Sahakian, head of Karabakh’s national security service, has the support of the main political parties in the local parliament as well as most of the government and the elite in Armenia. Masis Mailian serves as the unrecognised republic’s deputy foreign minister, but is gathering more support from circles outside government.

The poll was triggered by the end of the second term of current Karabakh leader Arkady Ghukasian. Although Karabakh has passed a new constitution which might have enabled him to serve a third term, he took the decision to step down after two periods in office.

Around 90,000 people are registered to vote in the poll. If no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote on July, a second round will be held between the two main candidates in two weeks’ time.

“The defining feature of this campaign is its fierceness,” said Karabakh Armenian political commentator David Karabekian. “If in a previous campaign one of the candidates won because he...got in the worst case 86 per cent of the vote, this battle has a completely different character.”

Sahakian, 47, was not a public politician before the election campaign began. During the 1991-4 war, he was one of the leading officers on the Armenian side. He has been campaigning on a programme to raise living standards in the territory.

He is promising support for war veterans, pensioners, schoolchildren and families with multiple children and has pledged that there will be a fivefold increase in mortgage credits available from the government in 2008.

Karabekian said that in the campaign Sahakian had managed to demonstrate he was his own man and not just a puppet of the elites, “Several times he has distanced himself from steps recommended to him and initiated by these people.”

On the overarching issue for Nagorny Karabakh - its future status and their stance on negotiations with the Azerbaijani government - the two men express similar views. Both say that they want to see Karabakh recognised as an independent state and represented in peace negotiations with Baku. Currently, the Karabakh Armenians do not have a place at the table and are represented by the government in Yerevan.

Both are also against making concessions on the occupied territories outside Karabakh until the sovereignty of the republic is determined.

“Negotiations between the Nagorny Karabakh Republic and Azerbaijan about defining current borders can be held only after the unconditional recognition of the sovereignty and state independence of Nagorny Karabakh,” said Mailian.

Mailian, 39, has worked in Karabakh’s foreign ministry since it was created in the middle of the war in 1993 and took part in a series of negotiations with Baku in the Nineties.

Mailian has focussed his campaign on the need for Karabakh to be more transparent and democratic and said the elections are a test of its credentials.

“Everyone has to be equal before the law,” he said. “Only if all the laws we have adopted actually work will be able to guarantee development, a good life and a bright future and receive international recognition.”

Mailian said that the authorities were cut off from the people of Karabakh, a situation he said was “unacceptable”.

“In recent days I have had many meetings with voters and all with one voice have said that no one listens to them and their statements are not received in the offices of the powerful.”

In a lively campaign, both main candidates have had the chance to present their views on television, although there have been no public debates. Both have toured Nagorny Karabakh and had public meetings with voters.

There have been no violent incidents but members of Mailian’s campaign team have complained that the government has been unfairly agitating on behalf of Sahakian on Karabakh television.

Karabekian believes that, although he is not the official candidate, Mailian has a genuine chance of success.

“Some analysts say that there isn’t a real contest between the candidates and that the authorities of Armenia and Nagorny

Karabakh have basically agreed who will be president and Masis Mailian is needed just as a sparring partner,” he said referring to Bako Sahakian.

“That is primitive logic. If the elections are just a backdrop for the transfer of power from one representative of the elite to another, an echo of the coming change of power in Armenia, then the question has to be asked: why have the authorities played, to use chess terminology, such big pieces and why are the different officials and bureaucrats agitating on behalf of their own candidate, acting so nervously?”

Gegham Baghdasarian, independent member of parliament and editor of the independent newspaper Demo, agrees that not everything has been decided in advance.

“Even before the electoral campaign began some people and some forces maintained and are still stating that the elections were pre-determined and it’s already clear who will be the next president of the country,” Baghdasarian said on public television.

“A person must really despise his own people and hold a low opinion of it, about its mental and moral level, to say something like that. It’s you, us, who will decide this. So don’t believe these fairy tales and go to the elections, not as though you are doomed but with the will to be masters of your own fate, in the frame of mind that who gets elected really depends on you.”

Ashot Beglarian is a freelance journalist and IWPR contributor in Nagorny Karabakh. Editor's note: The terminology used in this article was chosen by IWPR, not the author.

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