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

Karabakh's Election Conundrum

Azerbaijanis who fled during the Karabakh conflict were able to vote for a member of parliament who may not set foot in the disputed region.
By Rufat Abbasov

Refugees from the capital of the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh had a chance to pick their own representative to the Azerbaijani parliament for the first time in the 14 years since Azerbaijan became independent.

Election officials admit the move was as much about the politics of the long-running dispute as about representation, since voting did not take place inside Karabakh itself.

More than 3,000 former residents of the regional capital Khankendi – called Stepanakert by the Armenians – cast their ballots on November 6 to elect a deputy to the Milli Mejlis or national assembly.

Collecting the votes was a complex affair, as the people listed on the electoral roll now live scattered across Azerbaijan. To cope with the situation, election officials established nine polling stations for Khankendi voters and arranged buses to bring them in. None of the sites was actually in Nagorny Karabakh.

Elman Guliyev, a historian who left Karabakh in 1988, wiped the tears from his eyes as he cast his vote.

“I’m very glad I’ve been able to choose my own deputy at last,” he said. “Even if he can’t offer me any real assistance, I will be aware that he is representing my town in my parliament. I don’t need him to build roads or create new workplaces – I just want him to make it possible for us to return to Khankendi.”

“We don’t want a war. All we want is to go back to our home town.”

The extra-territorial voting highlighted the unresolved status of Karabakh more than a decade after the bitter conflict concluded with a ceasefire that left the Armenian separatist movement in control not only of Karabakh itself but also of surrounding areas that their leaders describe as a “security belt”.

The Azerbaijani refugees, or more accurately “internally displaced persons”, IDPs, who left as a result of the conflict had to try to build new lives in often squalid camps, although many have since moved into more permanent housing or left to work as migrant labour in Russia. The government says three quarters of a million Azerbaijanis became forced migrants, although this figure also includes those who moved from Armenia itself.

Azerbaijan hotly disputes the Armenians’ claim to independence, saying that under international law, Karabakh remains an integral part of the country.

Prolonged negotiations overseen by the OSCE have so far failed to reach a final resolution of the dispute, and an uneasy truce holds on the frontline.

To underscore its position, Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission, CEC, treated the disputed lands no differently from anywhere else in the country when it drew up a map of constituencies for the November election.

Three constituencies including Khankendi – and thus three Milli Mejlis seats – were set aside for areas lying inside the old boundaries of the prewar Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Region. There are at least seven other constituency whose boundaries include Armenian-controlled areas lying outside Karabakh proper.

The demarcation clearly had a political intent, to reassert Azerbaijan’s claim to govern the disputed region by giving representation to some of its people.

The Karabakh Armenian administration held a parliamentary election in June this year, which was duly won by the Democratic Party of Artsakh, that being the Armenians’ name for the region. The Baku government says these Armenian-run institutions enjoy no legitimacy.

The IDPs from Karabakh and surrounding areas have been able to vote in previous Azerbaijani elections, but not those from the regional capital. According to Natig Mamedov, secretary of the CEC, this was because Khankendi had a majority Armenian population which until now had made it technically impossible to hold a ballot.

“Starting this year, parliamentary elections are being conducted under a majoritarian system, and that enabled us to hold a ballot would take place in Khankendi constituency,” explained Mamedov. “We could not hold elections previously as that would have required the participation of most residents of Khankendi, and Armenians were in the majority.” Under the new system, the vote is deemed valid whatever the turnout.

Azerbaijani officials insisted that the Armenian section of the electorate would be welcome to vote. The CEC even asked the OSCE and Council of Europe, CoE, to help draw up accurate voter lists for Armenians living in Stepanakert/Khankendi. Mats Lindberg, head of the CoE’s mission in Azerbaijan, said the request was received too late to do anything about it.

However, given the total lack of contact between the two communities across the front line that divides them, it currently seems unlikely that either group would either want or be able to take part in the other’s political institutions.

The message from Baku was loud and clear – voting in the Milli Mejlis election was the only legitimate process that the Karabakh Armenians could be involved in.

In its August announcement of the new constituency, the CEC “appeals to citizens of Azerbaijan of Armenian origin who live in the occupied territories to assist in getting rid of the separatist regime in order to guarantee their own constitutional rights”.

"Yes, it was partly a political decision,” admitted Mamedov, referring specifically to the creation of a Khankendi ballot and the appeal to Armenians to take part. “The prosecess of resolving the Karabakh conflict is making headway, and President Ilham Aliev has said more than once that Azerbaijan is ready to guarantee and protect the rights of the Armenian community. This step confirms that intention.”

With 90 per cent of the votes counted, Havva Mamedova, who works with an institute for government administration that has close links with President Aliev’s office, was the clear leader in a field of six candidates, all of them born in Khankendi.

In her election campaign, Mamedova promised to “try to restore executive authority and unite the residents of Khankendi”.

“My work will be very difficult, but I am sure that by the end of my term, I will be able to visit my native district, where Azerbaijani authority will have been restored," she said.

One Armenian involved in the Milli Mejlis election was Svetlana Gorchieva, who left Khankendi with her Azerbaijani husband during the war years.

“I was very glad they appointed me a member of the Khankendi constituency [election commission] because I’m from there,” she said. "I hope that the creation of this constituency and the election of a deputy will help bring an end to the Karabakh conflict. We all want peace."

Rufat Abbasov is an independent journalist working in Baku.