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

Two Main Candidates Square up for Karabakh Election

Decorated Karabakh war veteran seen as main challenger to incumbent.
By Karine Ohanyan
  • Karabakh's incumbent president Bako Sahakyan. (Photo: B. Sahakyan) and his main challenger, Vitaly Balasanyan (Photo: V. Balasanyan)
    Karabakh's incumbent president Bako Sahakyan. (Photo: B. Sahakyan) and his main challenger, Vitaly Balasanyan (Photo: V. Balasanyan)

Nagorny Karabakh’s president Bako Sahakyan is running for a second term in July, in an election that looks to be a real contest, even if differences on key policy issues are more about nuances than complete disagreement.

Before he was elected in 2007, Sahakyan was interior minister in 1997-2001, and the national security minister.

His most serious rival in the July 19 ballot is Vitaly Balasanyan, who earned the highest military decoration during the war with Azerbaijan in the early 1990s, which left an Armenian administration in control of Nagorny Karabakh. Balasanyan served as deputy defence minister and chairman of the war veterans’ organisation before becoming a member of parliament.

There are two other candidates – Arkady Soghomonyan, an agricultural specialist, and unemployed Valery Khachatryan – but the pundits doubt either of them has much of a chance. Neither has spoken to the press, and their phones go unanswered.

In contrast, Balasanyan is already campaigning via his Facebook page, using a social networking site that proved very influential in the recent parliamentary election in Armenia.

He told IWPR that under Karabakh’s laws, he is not technically allowed to campaign until June 19, but he is updating his page every day with his thoughts and photographs.

“I launched the page with the aim of engaging more actively,” Balasanyan wrote in a recent post. “I’m going to put down my thoughts and ideas and see how readers react. I think virtual conversations will be productive.”

Diana Movsesyan, a graduate of Artsakh State University – the main institute of higher education in Karabakh – has already clicked “like” on Balasanyan’s Facebook page.

“I am convinced that Balasanyan’s candidacy gives us a chance to hold a different kind of election in Karabakh. I want it to be democratic, without pressure or anything,” she said. “I hope that state institutions don’t exploit their power [in favour of the incumbent] ahead of the election. I hope this election changes the atmosphere in the country, and I hope that afterwards, Karabakh will regain its ‘partly free’ rating from Freedom House.”

In its report for this year, the Washington-based civil liberties watchdog organisation Freedom House rated Karabakh as “not free”, a deterioration from the “partly free” ranking it held until 2009. In the same listing, Armenia is described as “partly free” and Azerbaijan as “not free”.

In previous elections in Karabakh, voters’ choices have been blunted by the fact that candidates generally adopt almost identical positions on key issues like security, the aspiration for international recognition, and pledges to improve living standards.

The Karabakh war ended with a ceasefire in 1994, but no lasting peace agreement has been signed, and protracted negotiations led by France, Russia and the United States have not succeeded in persuading the Karabakh Armenians to give up their independence claim, the Azerbaijani government to recognise that independence, or the two sides to reach a compromise deal.

Armenian and Azerbaijani troops still face each other along the fortified “line of control” around Nagorny Karabakh, and shooting incidents are frequent.

International groups like the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe do not send monitors to Karabakh to check on the fairness of its elections, and candidates in previous polls have complained that incumbents have drawn on state resources to assist their campaigns.

Sahakyan, who won 85 per cent of the vote first time round in 2007, has pledged to pursue his current social and economic reforms if he gets another term.

As president, Sahakyan has naturally worked closely with officials from Armenia, although that state has not recognised Karabakh as independent.

Balasanyan said he did not think Armenia would formally back the incumbent president.

“They are obliged to support any decision that the people of Nagorny Karabakh take,” he said.

Masis Mayilyan, who ran for the presidency in 2007 and now heads of the Civic Council for Foreign Policy and Security, said he hoped this election would open up politics.

“The forthcoming election… gives politicians the chance to redress the mistakes that occurred ahead of the 2007 [presidential] and 2010 parliamentary elections. Those elections led to Karabakh having a unipolar political arena and parliament, and the independent press was wiped out,” he said. “If the Dashnaktsutyun party supports Vitaly Balasanyan, a parliamentarian and member of that party, then the country wins even if he’s unsuccessful, since Dashnaktsutyun will be an opposition party in parliament.”

Masis, who gained 12 per cent of the vote in 2007, has endorsed Balasanyan, who has presented some new ideas about how to work towards a deal at the peace talks.

Karabakh is excluded from the negotiations, in which Azerbaijan and Armenia are the only state parties.

“The main thing I am unhappy about is Sahakyan’s foreign policy. He isn’t doing enough to shift Karabakh from being the object of the talks to being a subject,” Balasanyan said.

“I will fight to secure the return of Karabakh to the negotiating table as an equal participant, and I will work to ensure the swiftest possible signing of an inter-state agreement [between Karabakh and Armenia] assigning Armenia official status as guarantor of our security.”

Karine Ohanyan is a reporter for Armedia Online.