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

Karabakh Stages First Genuine Leadership Contest

Unrecognised territory holds election in defiance of international criticism.
By Karine Ohanian
Nagorny Karabakh elected a new leader, former military commander Bako Sahakian, on July 19, in a ballot condemned as illegitimate by the outside world but seen by Karabakh Armenians as the first genuine leadership contest in the region.

Sahakian, the official candidate, received the backing of both pro-government and opposition parties, winning 85 per cent of the vote.

Before his victory, Sahakian, 46, was little known to the wider public in the entity, whose self-declared independence has not been recognised by the international community.

In the 1991-4 Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Karabakh, he was a military commander, then became interior minister and head of the Karabakh’s security service.

Sahakian’s supporters maintain that despite his career in the security services he is a democratically-minded man, who has served several times as an intermediary between government and opposition. His election campaign rested on the assertion that he was a simple honest man who would respond to the complaints of ordinary citizens.

Sahakian faced four other candidates, only one of whom, deputy foreign minister Masis Mailian, mounted a credible campaign, ending up with 12 per cent of the vote.

Despite working for the local government and although the two opposition parties in parliament supported Sahakian, Mailian became in effect the opposition candidate, appealing to those in society who were discontented with the governing elite. His main base support was the professional intelligentsia in the capital, Stepanakert.

Mailian’s supporters said that Sahakian depended too closely on outgoing leader Arkady Ghukasian, who backed his protégé openly on television, at public meetings and in interviews.

“Whatever post he’s held, he’s been my best and most reliable colleague,” Ghukasian told IWPR.

The backers of the new president say that he is determined to fight corruption and that he benefited from a wide base of support that stretched beyond government.

“Just give him time,” said a young Karabakh Armenian named Alexander Harutiunian. “We’ll speak in a year and then you’ll see!”

“Karabakhis believe that Karabakh needs a strong hand and that Sahakian is capable of playing that role,” said political analyst David Babayan, explaining his emphatic victory.

The electoral programmes of the two main candidates barely differed from one another. Both share the view that Karabakh should be recognised as an independent state and represented at peace talks with the Baku government.

During the election campaign, Sahakian talked mainly about social issues and made promises to help young married couples and large families. “I campaigned on the slogan ‘Together for the sake of Karabakh’ and I intend to stick to this principle in future,” he said.

Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying that the elections “contradict the constitution of Azerbaijan, the norms and principles of international law and have no legal force”.

The statement said that the poll could only be regarded as legitimate if “the Azerbaijani population expelled from [Nagorny Karabakh] takes part in them”.

The Azerbaijani authorities also complained to the Russian parliament, the State Duma, for allowing a parliamentary deputy to monitor the polls as an observer. And it warned the Russian television broadcaster RTR, which ran a report on the elections, that a continuation of its license to broadcast in Azerbaijan would depend on “mutual respect by television channels of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and Russia”.

Karabakh Armenians reject the accusations that the election was undemocratic.

Defeated candidate Mailian said that he was pleased that “we achieved one of the goals set us – to guarantee really contested elections as a means of guaranteeing the democratic image of the Nagorny Karabakh republic”.

Many of the 100 or so unofficial international observers who monitored the elections also said that they were conducted fairly. “People know who they are voting for and why,” said Giuletto Chiesa, the well-known Italian journalist, now a member of the European parliament and visiting in an unofficial capacity. “It’s no worse here than in Italy.”

Mailian’s campaign headquarters did complain that the election process had been stacked against their candidate, with Sahakian receiving backing through official channels and the media. The Mailian team made four complaints to the central electoral commission during the campaign and 20 complaints on election-day itself.

However, Mailian himself conceded that the violations had not been “decisive” in his defeat.

“We know that the atmosphere put real pressure on people but all the same we cannot not accept that it was a conscious choice,” he said. “People could have acted otherwise but they did not. That is their right. We understand their right and accept their choice.”

Following his defeat, Mailian said he was now considering his options. He could continue to work in government or be at the head of a new opposition movement.

In the semi-ruined town of Shushi (known to Azerbaijanis as Shusha), there were few voters and IWPR found little campaigning. Local headmaster Albert Khachatrian, representing Sahakian, told IWPR, “In a situation of no war and no peace, there is no need for fierce competition between the candidates. Just as before, we need to be united in everything. Bako Sahakian will give us this unity.”

The only person in Mailian’s Shushi headquarters was one elderly watchman, while none of the other candidates were represented.

At the town’s two polling stations, there was more activity. IWPR tried to talk to a group of soldiers, but was stopped from doing so by their captain, who said all questions should be directed to him.

“Campaigning is forbidden in the armed forces but the soldiers have access to television, radio and the newspapers,” said Captain Balayan, as his men went to vote in groups of three.

In the eastern village of Aigestan, there was a queue of voters to cast their ballots at the polling station. Zoya Barseghian confided to IWPR, “I like Mailian’s programme more but I will vote for Sahakian. I have to do that.”

All international bodies have declared the elections in Nagorny Karabakh illegitimate. However, there is a general feeling of satisfaction within Karabakh that they have taken place.

Outgoing leader Ghukasian parried the criticism by saying, “If the international community does not recognise electoral processes in our country, they should offer an alternative. Nagorny Karabakh is holding elections not for the world but for its people.”

Dmitry Avaliani is a journalist with 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi, Georgia; Karine Ohanian is a journalist with Demo newspaper in Nagorny Karabakh; Ahra Smyr is a journalist with Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper in Abkhazia. All three are members of IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network. IWPR’s Azerbaijan Country Director Shahin Rzayev contributed to the article. The terminology used in this article to describe Nagorny Karabakh was chosen by IWPR, not by the authors.