Karabakh Government Faces Little Competition

Tiny Karabakh’s opposition moribund, lacks issues to fight on.

Karabakh Government Faces Little Competition

Tiny Karabakh’s opposition moribund, lacks issues to fight on.

Nagorny Karabakh, after a decade of vigorous debate, has lapsed into political stagnation as opposition figures seek the profits brought by cooperation with the government.

In 2007, when Bako Sahakian announced he would run for president of Karabakh, which has declared independence but is not internationally recognised, all political parties united around him. For Gegham Baghdasarian, president of the Stepanakert press club and one of the few independent members of parliament, that was the moment when the opposition ceased to exist.

“Here everything gets killed – ideas, movements, differences, competition and, as a result, development,” he told IWPR.

Karabakh was proclaimed a sovereign republic in September 1991, when local Armenians declared themselves free of Soviet Azerbaijan. A subsequent war raged until a ceasefire in 1994, and the Armenians have ruled themselves in defiance of Baku’s objections ever since.

A strong opposition emerged even during the war, with the Dashnaktsutiun party, which is active throughout the Armenian diaspora, vigorously contesting the decisions of the republic’s then leaders. It became the main opposition in parliament for a while, but was all but snuffed out in 2005, and now has just two of the 33 seats.

Sahakian himself, speaking to students in February, said the lack of an opposition was because Karabakh’s 140,000 residents supported his policies. But the few surviving opposition figures were more critical. They said recent stability in Karabakh had led to politicians re-aligning themselves with the government to gain lucrative posts.

“The existing parties in Nagorny Karabakh would rather be in power, even if they do not agree with the policies of the authorities,” said Masis Mailian, who stood against Sahakian in 2007 and now heads the public board for foreign policy and security of the Nagorny Karabakh republic.

“The existing party elites of Karabakh do not see opposition activities as fruitful. The experience of elections in recent years in many countries of the former Soviet Union does not give much hope for an opposition victory. There are countries where opposition candidates are not even registered, and this is becoming the norm.”

Parliament is dominated by the president’s allies, with three parties – Free Homeland, the Democratic Party of Artsakh and Artsakhatun – holding 28 of the seats. Three independent deputies and the two from Dashnaktsutiun make up the balance.

The opposition’s eclipse came as a surprise in 2005, since just a year before the government candidate was defeated in Stepanakert mayoral elections. David Ishkhanian, head of Dashnaktsutiun’s central committee in Karabakh, said the people did not seem to care about political issues, since the republic’s unrecognised status meant issues of security remained more important.

“Of course, there are domestic political difficulties, but they are far behind the major national issues,” he said.

And most observers pointed out that opposition could only come into existence if there was public demand for it. One of the reasons for Karabakh’s bland political scene was that the electorate was not demanding different points of view. This may be a legacy of the Soviet system, in which all issues were resolved behind closed doors.

“It is ideal that a healthy opposition exists in every state, but you must say that it cannot be created in a vacuum. You need pressure from society, and if this appears, you will see an opposition emerge. If there is no opposition, then there is no need for one,” said Gagik Petrosian, a pro-presidential parliament deputy.

Mailian said he hoped public pressure would force political changes before next year’s parliamentary elections, and that the authorities would allow a strong opposition to form.

“This is possible only if the electoral process is organised within the law,” he said.

But observers were not so sure. They said the specific conditions of Karabakh – small, poor, mountainous, legally uncertain - could well prevent any serious challenger to the president from appearing.

“Being a small country, Karabakh has always had to unite its forces, so as to oppose external enemies,” said David Karabekian, an independent political analyst, who lamented the drawbacks of such a situation.

“Without an opposition, control is lost over the actions of the authorities, who start to act for the benefit of a small circle – their friends, acquaintances and relatives.”

And there was one other factor that ensured that – unless the distant prospect of Karabakh gaining international recognition becomes a reality – the republic’s political system will not change.

In the current environment, it is entirely dependent on Armenia for trade and its connection to the outside world. Although Yerevan has not recognised Karabakh’s independence, there are close ties between the two entities, and Armenian influence is huge.

“There is another factor that means a representative of the opposition could never become president, and that is the influence of Armenia, and in particular the fact that the preference of the Armenian leadership dictates who will be president of Nagorny Karabakh,” said Karen Ohanjanian, coordinator of the Helsinki Initiative/92 Nagorno-Karabakh Committee, a human rights group.

Anahit Danelian is a correspondent for Hetq in Stepanakert and a participant in IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network.
Support our journalists