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Little Choice for Karabakh Voters

Activists say lack of an opposition harming development of free society in entity.
By Anahit Danielyan
  • Voters in elections to the Karabakh parliament won’t have much choice because of the absence of opposition candidates. Photo by Anahit Danielyan.
    Voters in elections to the Karabakh parliament won’t have much choice because of the absence of opposition candidates. Photo by Anahit Danielyan.

Nagorny Karabakh’s voters will choose a new parliament in less than a month, but their choice will be constrained by the complete absence of opposition candidates.

The Communist Party says it is in opposition, however its claim is rather undermined by the fact its leader was an adviser to the prime minister until just a few weeks ago.

The government insists it has done nothing to stop opposition candidates or parties from standing, though observers say Karabakh’s unresolved status makes it hard for a politician to both oppose the government and appear loyal to the state.

Karabakh was part of Soviet Azerbaijan but its mainly Armenian population declared unilateral independence at the end of the communist period.  Since a 1994 ceasefire, it has been largely stable, however its independence has not been recognised internationally and Baku insists it is part of its territory.

“The Communist Party cannot forget the interests of the working people or defend the interests of the rich. I personally did work as an adviser to the prime minister, and opposed him on many questions. I announced this, but the questions were not resolved, and when the pre-election campaign started, I resigned from my position,” Hrant Melkumyan, head of the Communist Party in Karabakh, said.

His party has been one of the more active participants in Karabakh’s elections. In 2007, when most parties united around the candidacy of now President Bako Sahakyan, it fielded its own candidate, but it has not exactly been a vigorous opponent of the government since.

“When Karabakh is recognised as an independent state, we will become a radical opposition,” Melkumyan said.

His dilemma is clear, but civil activists say the absence of an opposition is harming the development of a free society in Karabakh, which is called Artsakh by Armenians.

“Sadly, in most of the post-Soviet countries there is a movement backwards in questions of democratic values. In Nagorny Karabakh, so far unrecognised by the international community, the development of democracy and the provision of a decent life to citizens are significant political factors,” said Masis Mayilyan, chairman of the Social Council of Karabakh for foreign policy and security.

“However, the personal interests of the authorities and of certain representatives of the former opposition became the prevailing factors in the republic’s political life, which has led to a destruction of the social balance.”

Another political analyst, Davit Babayan, who also acts as a spokesman for the president, said this election was certainly calmer than previous races, but denied the government had somehow forced opponents out of the race.

“If representatives of the opposition do not take part in the struggle, that is their business. Here, no one forces one party or another to take part or not take part in elections,” he said.

Karabakh’s almost 100,000 voters will elect 17 of the parliament’s 33 deputies on party lists, with the communists being joined by Free Homeland, the biggest party in parliament at the moment, the Democratic Party of Artsakh, and the Dashnaktsutyun party. The other 16 deputies will be elected from among 44 candidates standing in single-member constituencies.

Turn-out was a high 74.4 per cent in the last parliamentary elections, when the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s and Movement 88 party’s  alliance stood in opposition to the government and won three seats. Since then, opposition has all but vanished.

Hayk Khanumyan, head of the European Movement of Artsakh group, said it has been difficult for the opposition to survive in Karabakh, since for decades the opposition has been Azerbaijan, and many political players still see Baku as their opponent and say all of Karabakh should unite against it.

And Davit Gharabekyan, a professor at the Artsakh State University, said the opposition was unlikely to re-appear any time soon. He said public and widely-trusted figures would have to unite around a separate political programme, and gain a high profile among voters, and that seemed very unlikely in current conditions.

“You can’t say that the statements made against the government before the elections on various political platforms by the various political groups or individuals constitute an opposition,” he said.

He said a genuine and organised opposition movement would help bring forward new policy ideas, and would bring people who dislike the government into politics - but he was not entirely without hope for the future.

“There are people though, who if they united could create such a force,” he said.

Anahit Danielyan is a correspondent of Armmedia in Stepanakert.

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