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Post-election Backlash in Nagorny Karabakh

President Arkady Ghukasian's government redoubles its efforts to sideline the opposition in Stepanakert
By IWPR

Opposition leaders in Nagorny Karabakh claim the republic's de facto regime is openly attempting to overturn the humiliating results of last month's parliamentary elections.


Despite concerted efforts to crush any political opposition prior to the June 17 polls, the ruling party won just 13 of the 33 seats in the war-torn Armenian enclave. But now the republic's high court has quashed the results returned by two Stepanakert districts where independent candidates emerged triumphant. And few have any doubts that the second round of voting will end in victory for their pro-government rivals.


Maxim Mirzoyan, one of the two deputies to have lost his mandate, says the 40-minute court hearing was staged by the authorities in a bid to claw back lost seats. He believes that he was targeted because he had attempted to stand for parliamentary speaker.


Most opposition figures see the court's decision as the culmination of a long-term campaign to silence the last vestiges of political dissent in Nagorny Karabakh.


The campaign took its cue from the fierce rivalry between President Arkady Ghukasian and Samvel Babayan, hero of the 1991-1994 war and commander-in-chief of the Karabakh armed forces.


After dismissing Babayan as defence minister in June 1999, Ghukasian devoted considerable efforts to driving a rift between leading military figures who had previously supported the general. To this end, the president set up a pro-government Union of Karabakh War Veterans in direct opposition to Babayan's Yerkrapah Union of Volunteers.


A non-governmental organisation, the Union of Democratic Artsakh (UDA), was also formed from leading members of the government and top civil servants in a bid to divide socio-political forces within the republic.


By early spring, the political battle lines in Nagorny Karabakh were clearly drawn. Babayan enjoyed unilateral support from the social democratic and Christian democratic parties as well as Yerkrapah while Ghukasian was backed by the communists, the Union of Karabakh War Veterans, the Armenakan party and the UDA.


Only the Dashnaktsutiun Armenian Revolutionary Federation chose to adopt a wholly independent stance.


All this changed on March 22 this year, when two gunmen ambushed Ghukasian's limousine in downtown Stepanakert, unleashing a hail of machine-gun fire which seriously injured the president, his driver and bodyguard.


The ruling regime promptly arrested Babayan and his supporters on suspicion of planning the attempted assassination. In one fell swoop, the republic's political opposition and independent media were effectively neutralised.


As a result, the elections themselves were held in conditions of martial law while the central electoral commission was staffed with members of the ruling cabal and the former communist bureaucracy.


The commission announced that, from an official population of 120,000, more than 84,000 voters turned out for the polls while the 20,000-strong Karabakhi army voted unanimously for the ruling party.


Opposition forces were quick to point out that unofficial figures put the population of Nagorny Karabakh at around 70,000 of whom between 40,000 and 60,000 have the right to vote. They have accused the authorities of swelling the numbers with "dead souls" - long deceased voters who were hastily "resurrected" in time for the elections.


They also say that elections were illegally held in the Lachin province, which has no administrative status according to the Nagorny Karabakh constitution.


Some political parties boycotted the elections. Karen Oganjanian, leader of the Christian Democratic Party, said, "The CDP didn't take part in the process because it is absolutely impossible to observe democratic norms under conditions of martial law."


However, despite careful precautions, the authorities were to be disappointed by the election results. Dashnaktsutiun won nine seats on the Stepanakert parliament while 10 more went to deputies running under independent banners. Three of the latter were supporters of Samvel Babayan.


Ghukasian was full of bluster. "Life in Artsakh [the Armenian name for Nagorny Karabakh] is entering a new era and I am convinced that we have chosen the right path," he said. "I believe that the elections in the Nagorny Karabakh republic were just and fair."


But the ruling regime was clearly concerned by the high proportion of opposition victories. The tension was very evident in the subsequent vote for a parliamentary speaker - a top position in the Nagorny Karabakh government.


The voting saw a stand-off between the pro-Ghukasian candidate, Oleg Yesayan, and Dashnaktsutiun leader Maxim Mirzoyan - a former activist in the Karabakh Movement and mayor of Stepanakert. Yesayan's victory was overshadowed by accusations of vote-fixing and a mass walkout by members of Dashnaktsutiun who claimed that reforms in the republic were impossible as long as the "old guard" remained in power.


This confrontation is likely to continue, given Dashnaktsutiun's influence in Armenia and abroad. The party has also won two of the six posts in the permanent leadership of the parliamentary commission - a development which promises to be a source of constant irritation to the ruling regime.


Anatoly Kuprianov is a political observer and commentator who specialises in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict


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