Competitive Caucasus Elections

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Op-Ed National Interest
A surprisingly strong electoral showing for the opposition presidential candidate in Nagorny Karabakh reflects the emergence of politics from below in former Soviet Union territories.
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A curious election took place recently in the Caucasus. It attracted very little notice but deserved more. In the tiny, unrecognized territory of Nagorny Karabakh—entirely Armenian but still regarded by the world as de jure part of Azerbaijan—an opposition candidate for president did extremely well.

With no support from any political party and in a place with a strong tradition of government control, Vitaly Balasanian collected 32 percent of the vote against the incumbent Bako Saakian, who was reelected president. According to local statistics, about seventy thousand people voted. Balasanian’s was an impressive performance by any standards. In most of the former Soviet Union, opposition candidates do not get a third of the vote. The result was even more striking in the limited conditions of Nagorny Karabakh. In Armenia’s last—disputed—presidential election, former president and head of the opposition Levon Ter-Petrosian was awarded 21 percent of the vote. The Armenian opposition may now take heart ahead of the next presidential election there, due in February 2013.

This was not an election fought primarily over foreign or security policy. There was consensus on the issue of Nagorny Karabakh’s status, with both main candidates maintaining that the territory should be an independent state, separate from Azerbaijan. Having been a leading military commander in the conflict of 1991–1994, Balasanian’s patriotic credentials were unimpeachable, and he actually took a harder-line position than his rival: he said that Karabakh should insist on being represented at the negotiating table and unequivocally rejected the return of the occupied territories around Karabakh to Azerbaijan (a central part of the peace deal currently on the table, accepted by Yerevan).

The differences were over domestic policy, with the discontent of voters perhaps more directed against the controversial prime minister, Arayik Harutyunyan, than against the president. The opposition candidate picked up his strongest support in three rural regions, Askeran, Martakert and Martuni, where socio-economic problems are greatest.

The Karabakh election conforms to a curious trend whereby some of the most competitive elections in the post-Soviet space are in unrecognized or partially recognized territories.

Separatist Transnistria recently chose as its new leader a young parliamentarian Yevgeny Shevchuk, who defeated the candidates more favored by the old guard and by Moscow. Abkhazia has had two fiercely competitive elections in 2004 and 2011, in which the candidate positioning himself as the outsider prevailed both times. Even South Ossetia, whose current population is estimated at no more than forty thousand and whose budget is 99 percent supported by Russia, managed to hold a dramatic semifarcical election last year in which the opposition candidate, Alla Jiyoeva, won. The results of that ballot were then annulled, but the eventual winner, Leonid Tibilov, was by local standards a fairly independent candidate who has appointed Jiyoeva to his cabinet.

What is going on here? If I have an explanation it is that, paradoxically, because statehood is weaker in these territories, ordinary members of society are more self-reliant and less susceptible to pressure. There is more politics from below. But I would use the word “competitive” advisedly. These are not regular elections. There is a democratic deficit in part because these territories are not recognized sovereign states (although this should not disqualify them from having democratic aspirations.)

More problematic is the issue of the “missing populations,” Azerbaijani and Georgian, that cannot take part in the vote because they were displaced by war. In the last Soviet census of 1988, 23 percent of the population of Nagorny Karabakh was Azerbaijani. All of those people are now refugees inside their own country.

What is a proper international verdict on a poll like such as one? International observers continue to tie themselves in knots, satisfying neither the Armenian side (“Why do you ignore us if we hold a good democratic election?”) nor the Azerbaijanis (“Don‘t give any credence to a territory that no one, not even Armenia, has recognized as sovereign.”) Freedom House has begun to give democracy ratings to the breakaway territories but has almost no direct presence on the ground to make its judgment.

At the very least, there is a political judgment that the citizens of these lands have a crucial stake in the eventual peace settlements of the conflicts and that it is desirable for them to have legitimate leaders who can speak on their behalf.

In March 1992, making plans for a peace conference on the Karabakh conflict (that has still not been held twenty years on), the then Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, now the OSCE, first tried to square this circle by stating that “elected and other representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh (i.e. Armenians and Azerbaijanis respectively) will be invited to the Conference.”

The current OSCE mediators did their best to continue this line in their latest statement, saying “The Co-Chairs acknowledge the need for the de facto authorities in NK to try to organize democratically the public life of their population with such a procedure. However, the Co-Chairs note that none of their three countries, nor any other country, recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent and sovereign state.”

Along the same lines, the EU foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton issued a statement, criticizing the basis for the election but not the election itself: “I would like to reiterate that the European Union does not recognise the constitutional and legal framework in which they will be held. These 'elections' should not prejudice the determination of the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh in the negotiated general framework of the peaceful settlement of the conflict.”

The rather tortured language of these statements reflects an underlying discomfort. The longer these protracted post-Soviet conflicts remain unresolved, these elections pose an international challenge which is growing, not diminishing.

This article was originally published in the National Interest.

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Comments (2)

  • Jack Kalpakian
    Concerning the most recent peace in the BBC, you again use imbalanced, and implicitly anti-Armenian, language. You portray Azeri NGO activists trying to set up dialog with Armenians disappointed with Safarov's release and on the other hand you describe "hardliners" in Armenia "using" the release. Unfortunately and very predictably, you fail to draw the real lesson of Safarov's release: the government of Azerbaijan denied Armenian people the right to life, it has socialized its people with hatred as a value, and to that extent your stance about the need to re-integrate Karapkh into Azerbaijan is patently and completely false. The release of Safarov destroys whatever little was left of your credibility on Armenian related issues. Please refrain from writing on this issue; you may as well be working for the PR office of British Petroleum as far as many Armenians are concerned.
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  • Arman Shekyan
    Mr. de Waal,
    Below I'm re-posting my comment to your article I made at National Interest's website as my views haven't changed.
    You referred to the issue of displaced persons questioning the legitimacy of elections in unrecognized countries. In case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia it's understandable as Georgians were almost of the same size as Abkhazians and Ossetians (thus there should be a legitimacy issue), for NK elections I think you'd agree it's not a ground for not "recognizing" elections on the same basis as Azeris were minority in overall NK population. Otherwise you should question all Azerbaijani elections due to missing 400,000 Armenians that fled that country in late 1980s and beginning 1990s. Second, in the following paragraph "In March 1992, making plans for a peace conference on the Karabakh conflict the then Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, now the OSCE, first tried to square this circle by stating that “elected and other representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh (i.e. Armenians and Azerbaijanis respectively) will be invited to the Conference.” your interpretaion in brackets is misleading as the phrase "elected and other representatives of NK" means elected and other (i.e. appointed) representatives, not the representatives of ethnic communities. It is well-known that the conflict was between NK and Azerbaijan, not between Armenian and Azeri population of NK, and in my belief you just referred to official Azeri point of view, which was groundless in this case. Azeri minority of NK was not a subject to the conflict, so it couldn't be a party to negotiation framework. Furthermore, 1994 OSCE Budapest Summit called on all (meaning 3 engaged parties) to the conflict, not Armenia, Azerbaijan and Armenian and Azeri communities of NK, to cease the war... Moreover, the cease-fire agreement was negotiated and signed in 1994 by other (Defense ministers, i.e. appointed) representatives of Armenia, Azerbaijan and NK. And finally, in 1994-1997 period (before the format got distorted) negotations took place between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh authorities. So, there is no international framework and document referring to Azeri minority as a party to conflict.There is no doubt Azeri minority rights and freedoms need to be regulated but it is a matter of an internal legislative framework of Nagorno Karabakh, not an issue influencing Karabakh's final status as the status is an issue that is defined by the majority of its population.
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