News & Analysis

Four takeaways from Nagorno Karabakh’s elections

Voters in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory in the South Caucasus, went to the polls in a combined presidential and parliamentary election on March 31.

According to the region’s Central Election Commission, Arayik Harutyunyan, Nagorno Karabakh’s former prime minister, won the first round of the presidential election, securing 49.3 per cent of the vote. Masis Mayilyan, a former Karabakh foreign minister came second with 26.4 per cent, followed by Vitaly Balasanyan, a local army general who garnered 14.7 per cent on a turnout of 73 per cent (more than 104,000 voters).

Narrowly missing out on the 50 per cent needed to win outright, Mr Harutyunyan will face Mr Mayilyan in the second round.

In the parliamentary poll, five parties made it over the electoral threshold: Mr Harutyunyan’s Free Fatherland Party, which took 40.4 per cent of the vote and is on course to be the region’s governing party, the United Homeland Party of retired army general Samvel Babayan, which received 23.6 per cent, and three other formations – Mr Balasanyan’s Justice Party (7.9 per cent), the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (6.4 per cent) and the Democratic Party of Artsakh (5.8 per cent).

The region, also known as Artsakh, has been disputed since 1988 when separatists supported by Armenia declared independence. This was followed by a six-year war until Russia brokered a ceasefire in 1994. For the past 26 years, the region has been governed as the Republic of Artsakh, a de facto independent state with an Armenian ethnic majority. It is the subject of a continuous dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with both countries having territorial claims over the region.

Baku and its allies have slammed the presidential and parliamentary votes as illegitimate. Yerevan defended the holding of the election.

Here are four takeaways on the implications of the elections for Armenia, Azerbaijan and the disputed region itself.

1. A grave concern for public health

“Normally, a free and fair election is a welcome exercise of democracy and freedom. But these are not normal times, and in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the holding of a presidential and parliamentary election in Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) has been a grave concern, and a serious mistake,” Richard Giragosian, the founding director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), an independent, Yerevan-based think tank told Emerging Europe prior to the vote, noting that while the threat of infection and contagion was obvious throughout the whole election campaign, the voting process itself only magnified the threat.

“In this period of quarantine, isolation, social distancing and lockdown, it was not only irresponsible for the Karabakh authorities to proceed with the vote, it was a threat,” he continued, noting that this threat was “particularly grave given the presence of large numbers of military personnel, where confined quarters of troops are especially vulnerable to infection and the rapid spread of the virus” since Karabakh society is one of the most militarised in the world. “The potential danger and elevated risk are being seriously ignored.”

“Moreover, although this stubborn insistence to hold the election is an act of irresponsibility and failure of leadership, the implications are far more severe than ever before. Any outbreak from voting day may ravage not only the population of Karabakh and beyond, but may decimate the armed forces and logically, pose a ‘second wave’ threat of viral contagion against Armenia,” he stressed.

Karabakh’s authorities have not yet reported any coronavirus cases.

2. Widening interests in cooperating with Yerevan

Assessing the election results with regards to Karabakh’s relations with Armenia, Mr Giragosian says that both the campaign rhetoric and the political discourse were “fairly uniformly consistent, with little difference or debate over issues of defense, foreign policy or strategy.”

“Such consensus reflects the virtual ‘state of war’ with neighbouring Azerbaijan and is further grounded in the strategic relationship between Karabakh and Armenia. And this only fostered more of a divergence on more pressing domestic issues,” he explains.

According to the Yerevan-based analyst, many in the government of Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan were hesitant in seeing the former Karabakh premier as the region’s next leader. “Seen as a favoured successor to outgoing Karabakh president Bako Sahakyan, Mr Harutyunyan was viewed as the candidate of the ‘old guard’, whose victory was feared as a retreat from reform and democracy,” he believes, noting that “this suggests that the now demonstrable divide between Armenia and Karabakh may now only deepen.”

Nevertheless, he believes that Mr Harutyunyan’s likely election “does represent a widening of interests” between Stepanakert and Yerevan.

3. Little or no impact on conflict settlement

The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has been mediated by the so-called Minsk Group of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in which France, Russia and the United States are also included as co-chairs.

Reacting to the Karabakh vote on March 31, the OSCE Minsk Group said that it had taken note of the “so-called general elections”, but stressed that the region was not an independent or sovereign state.

“This event cannot prejudice the determination of the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh or the outcome of the ongoing negotiation process,” the EU’s European External Action Service (EEAS) said, condemning the election.

Mr Giragosian believes that the election will make little real difference to the broader perspective of the ongoing, OSCE-mediated talks.

“As Karabakh itself has been excluded from the peace process and despite its obvious significance as the most direct party to the conflict, it is Armenia that has long negotiated on its behalf,” he says, adding that the Armenian government under Mr Pashinyan has led “a concerted effort to bring in the elected representatives of Karabakh into the talks as an equal participant.”

In its defence of the election, Armenia referred to a 1992 OSCE document which states that elected officials from the region “should also participate in talks between the two South Caucasian countries”.

4. An emerging democracy?

Despite condemning Karabakh for neglecting significant health concerns, Mr Giragosian believes that the eventual conduct of “yet another free and fair election” has contributed to the democratic credentials of the territory, which he finds “the strongest in the region, surpassing not only Azerbaijan but also Armenia itself in a long series of democratic and pluralistic elections”.

“In terms of the outlook for conflict resolution, a solidly democratic Karabakh stands out as a more reliable ‘partner for peace’ when and if Azerbaijan moves from its maximalist stance to a more sincere negotiator in the peace talks,” Mr Giragosian notes.

As pointed out by the Freedom in the World 2020 report of Freedom House, the political opening in Armenia that began with Mr Pashinyan’s rise to the premiership in 2018 had a positive effect on the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh during 2019.

“There was an increase in competition and civil society activity surrounding local elections in September, and the stage was set for further changes in the 2020 elections for Nagorno-Karabakh’s president and parliament,” says the report, stressing that “the Eurasia region’s other breakaway territories, which are all occupied by Russian troops, remained locked in a pattern of stagnation or decline in political rights and civil liberties.”

At the same time, analysts at Freedom House still consider Nagorno-Karabakh only a ‘partially free’ society.

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  • FOUR RESPONSES TO THE FOUR TAKEAWAYS

    1. If there weren’t elections in Nagorno-Karabakh, cries of unconstitutional acts and of using the coronavirus as an excuse to maintain incumbent power would be loud and clear. While the threat of infection exists, there are no reported coronavirus cases in Nagorno-Karabakh. Few, if any, visit this region in the winter.

    2. There is no old guard or new guard in Nagorno-Karabakh, only the guard!

    3. OSCE’s Minsk Group, various EU countries, and institutions claim the Nagorno-Karabakh vote is illegal. Those who claim the vote is illegal, provide no alternative. I challenge those who claim this vote is illegal to define the basis for a legal vote.

    4. The government of Nagorno-Karabakh maintains its sovereignty by permission of its population. The Republic of Armenia is the largest external guarantor of this sovereignty.

    Nagorno-Karabakh is only referred to as a “disputed territory” by its disparagers.

    Yerevan, Armenia