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Nagorno-Karabakh: Legislative Polls Trigger Political Tensions

Voting in Nagorno-Karabakh on 19 June The Nagorno-Karabakh region on 19 June held its fourth parliamentary election since it seceded from Soviet Azerbaijan in 1988. Early results show forces loyal to the ruling administration set to hold an overwhelming majority of seats. Tension in the separatist enclave is brewing as the opposition is threatening to boycott the new parliament amid accusations of ballot fraud.

Prague, 22 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- According to the Central Election Commission's latest returns today, President Arkadii Ghukasian's Democratic Party of Artsakh -- as Nagorno-Karabakh is known in Armenian -- will have 12 of the separatist region’s 33 parliamentary seats.

An allied party, Free Motherland (Azat Hayrenik), took 10 seats. Another eight went to candidates not affiliated with any political grouping, but thought to be loyal to Ghukasian.

That left Ghukasian's foes with just three seats. It was a surprisingly poor performance, especially since many in Karabakh expected the front-runner to be the opposition alliance made of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, or Dashnaktsutiun, and the Movement 88 alliance.

Movement 88 Deputy Chairman Gegham Baghdasarian on 20 June struck an ironic note while accusing the authorities of vote-rigging. “In my view, there were fair and transparent irregularities,” he said.

Baghdasarian yesterday indicated that the opposition might boycott the new parliament. He also alleged that authorities had ordered a physical assault on one Dashnaktsutiun candidate.

Dashnaktsutiun’s Armen Sargsian, whose party had eight seats in the previous legislature, also claimed vote fraud. He pledged to fight Ghukasian’s government through constitutional means, but said the opposition would not take to the streets to challenge the election outcome.
“Legislative polls in Karabakh -- like the rest of the domestic political arena -- are absolutely unable to influence the negotiation process because Nagorno-Karabakh is not part of the peace talks." - Fatullayev

“Our election bloc will continue to defend its program and do its utmost so that stability in the country is maintained,” Sargsian said.

A former education minister, Sargsian was sacked last December. His dismissal put a formal end to the cooperation between Dashnaktsutiun and the Ghukasian administration.

The government denies any foul play in the 19 June vote.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which does not recognize the existence of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, did not monitor the vote. However, a number of private organizations and Western rights groups sent election observers. Also present to monitor the polls was a group of deputies from the lower house of Russia’s parliament, the State Duma.

Addressing reporters in Stepanakert on 20 June, Russian Duma Deputy Konstantin Zatulin said the polls were fair and transparent. Individual Western observers also described the elections as generally fair.

Armenia’s Foreign Ministry on 20 June hailed the polls, describing them as “an important step toward reinforcing democratic institutions and traditions in Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Yet, not everyone outside Armenia and the separatist region agrees with this assessment. Eynulla Fatullayev, the editor in chief of the Baku-based “Real Azerbaijan” electronic newspaper, told our correspondent he did not expect the 19 June vote to end with such a massive defeat for the opposition.

“To be honest, I’m quite surprised by these results. After meeting with the leaders of the opposition and studying public opinion in Karabakh, I had predicted that the opposition would make a much better performance. I had the impression that the Movement 88 and Dashnaktsutiun parties -- especially Movement 88 -- would grab if not an overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats, at least a significant number of deputy mandates. But unfortunately -- or fortunately, I don’t know -- my prediction proved incorrect. I don’t have very much information yet, but from what I already know there were serious violations and irregularities in a number of constituencies,” Fatullayev said.

Fatullayev in February traveled to Karabakh and the Azerbaijani territories ethnic Armenian troops have been occupying for the past 12 years. He was the first Azerbaijani reporter to visit some of these areas since the 1994 truce that formally ended the war between Baku and Yerevan over Karabakh.

In the Karabakh capital of Stepanakert, Fatullayev met with civil rights activists and representatives of both the separatist leadership and the opposition. After that, he said, he came to believe the political situation in the enclave had dramatically changed since his previous visit five years earlier and that the separatist regime had seriously improved its democratic credentials.

As evidence to his claims, Fatullayev cited the August 2004 municipal polls that were won by the opposition and saw Movement 88 leader Eduard Aghabekian win the Stepanakert mayoralty over the well-funded government candidate.

Fatullayev admits that a number of factors -- such as disunity among the opposition -- may have to some degree influenced the outcome of the 19 June polls. However, he believes vote-rigging and the control exerted by the Ghukasian administration over the enclave’s administrative resources are mainly responsible for the defeat of antigovernment parties.

“In all likelihood the outcome of the political struggle was [most] influenced by falsifications. The opposition is more popular in Karabakh and the population trusts it more than it trusts the existing administration. Despite the important successes achieved by the current authorities in transforming the authoritarian and military regime that existed previously, the population is expecting more changes, more reforms,” Fatullayev said.

Baku has described the Karabakh polls as illegitimate. Yesterday, it said they were likely to undermine the OSCE-sponsored peace talks with Armenia over Karabakh.

But Fatullayev disagrees with this assessment. “Legislative polls in Karabakh -- like the rest of the domestic political arena -- are absolutely unable to influence the negotiation process because Nagorno-Karabakh is not part of the peace talks," he said. "Therefore I believe [the 19 June] polls will have no effect, neither positive, nor negative.”

Fatullayev, however, argues that the only significant change that could have occurred with the Karabakh opposition’s coming to power would have concerned the relationship between Stepanakert and Yerevan. He believes Movement 88 and Dashnaktsutiun would have sought to moderate Armenia’s influence on the enclave through the establishment of what he describes as “horizontal” ties with Yerevan in place of the existing “vertical” ones.

Meanwhile, the outcome of the elections has put Armenia’s Dashnaktsutiun in an awkward position. The party, which is a member of Armenia’s ruling coalition, has so far refrained from backing the fraud claims made by its Karabakh counterpart. Despite the party’s loose organization, its Armenian leaders may find themselves in an even deeper quandary if a political crisis breaks out in Karabakh.

(Ruzanna Khachatrian of RFE/RL’s Armenian Service contributed to this report.)

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