Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Karabakh Leader Heads for Landslide

The Armenian leader of Nagorny Karabakh is cruising towards another term in office, in an election condemned by Azerbaijan and the European Union
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Campaigning for this week’s election in Nagorny Karabakh has aroused more passion outside the unrecognised republic than in it.


In the run-up to the August 11 poll, political rallies have not been permitted because Karabakh is still officially under special military rule – although some local observers have argued that the ban should have been lifted during the election campaign.


No one is under any illusion that all the four candidates are getting the same treatment. Local television has given extensive airtime to the current leader Arkady Gukasian - both his meetings with the voters and his everyday activity as president.


Gukasian, a former journalist, has been leader of Karabakh since 1997, when his predecessor and close ally Robert Kocharian moved to Yerevan to become Armenian prime minister. Kocharian is now president of Armenia, and other Karabakhis are also in prominent government posts, a development which has tied the two territories even closer together.


Since the end of the war with Azerbaijan in 1994, there’s been no opposition to speak of in Karabakh. It would be misleading to call the three men challenging the president “opposition candidates” in the sense understood in the outside world.


Albert Gazarian, Artur Tovmasian and Grigory Afanasian have refrained from criticising Gukasian or the ruling authorities as a whole.


Afanasian, for instance, has frequently expressed his respect and admiration for Gukasian and the main plank of his election programme is that the Nagorny Karabakh Republic should be renamed the Nagorny Karabakh Democratic Republic. In a word, there have been no pre-election battles.


In fact, the only thing to have livened up the poll - for which 88,000 voters have registered - was news from Yerevan that the leader of the Union of Constitutional Law of Armenia Grant Khachatrian wanted to run in the presidential race, announcing his candidacy just hours before the deadline for registration ran out on July 12 and without the required 1500 signatures of support.


The same evening the Central Electoral Commission in Stepanakert refused to register Khachatrian as a candidate, saying that he lacked the necessary number of signatures. It was hard to understand whether Khachatrian was making a genuine bid to be president of the enclave.


Khachatrian revealed his cards when he said that he had wanted to make a point by applying to run for the leadership of Karabakh as an Armenian citizen. He was thereby reminding Armenians of the resolution of the two parliaments of Armenia and Karabakh in 1989 to merge the two territories into one - a decision loudly condemned as illegal by Azerbaijan.


The international community continues formally to regard the entity as the territory of Azerbaijan and therefore its elections as invalid. On August 2, the Danish presidency of the European Union on August 2 added its voice to Baku’s condemnation of the poll, saying it could not consider it legitimate.


Gukasian responded to the criticism by saying, “The international community should welcome the elections because the alternative to them could be dictatorship.”


The Armenian foreign ministry also complained that the international condemnation would hurt the work of Minsk Group mediators “complicating still further the work of the latter to achieve a final solution to this long-standing conflict”.


The enclave’s foreign ministry issued a statement, saying that the criticism played into the hands of “a regime [in Azerbaijan], which declares its readiness to use force against the people of Nagorny Karabakh”.


Gukasian does enjoy widespread political support in Karabakh. The only real opposition to him might have come from the local structures of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation or Dashnaktsutiun, the old nationalist Armenian party, which has a strong base in the entity. But after long consultations in Stepanakert and Yerevan, the Dashnaks decided not to put up their own candidate and to back Gukasian.


Dashnaktsutiun leader Grant Markarian, on a recent visit to Stepanakert, explained the decision by saying that “it is essential to leave behind personal, party and careerist temptations”. But it is also likely that Karabakh’s Dashnaks managed to cut a deal with Gukasian and that they will have more ministerial portfolios in the new government and more economic influence.


So it seems that the question “Who will be the next president?” has already been decided. But this does not necessarily mean that the Karabakh Armenians are content.


The Stepanakert Press Club and the Yerevan Centre for Social Technology, assisted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, conducted an opinion poll throughout Karabakh. It gives Gukasian 29.4 per cent of the vote and Tovmasian 7.2 per cent, with the other two candidates picking up only a tiny number of votes.


Thirty seven and a half per cent of respondents said had no preference and another 28.7 per cent said it made no difference who was president. Gukasian’s support was much stronger in the countryside than in the capital, Stepanakert.


It is interesting to note that even many of those who will vote for Gukasian are not optimistic about the future. Twenty seven and a half per cent of his supporters said they thought nothing would change with his re-election, while 4.8 per cent believe that things will actually get worse. However, 13.9 per cent of Gukasian voters said that the country would develop quickly and 41.8 per cent said that the situation would become relatively better.


Another finding of the poll was that 61.1 per cent of respondents said there was no freedom of expression in the territory. This was one reason why, ahead of the election, a group of Karabakhi NGOs released a statement lamenting the lack of democracy in their homeland.


They criticise international institutions and governments for both ignoring them and refusing to “finance various projects, aimed at constructing a civil society in Karabakh”. The letter continues, “In the mean time democratic processes are impossible without the development of a non-government sector.”


Gegam Bagdasarian is head of the Stepanakert Press Club