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Defeated Challenger Says Karabakh Election Was 'Free But Not Fair'

Vitaly Balasanian received around one-third of the vote.
Vitaly Balasanian received around one-third of the vote.
Incumbent Bako Sahakian was reelected on July 19 as de facto president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic with 66.70 percent of the vote, almost 20 percent less than he received in 2007.

His closest challenger, war hero and former Major-General Vitaly Balasanian, attributed Sahakian's win to pressure on voters and to the use of "administrative resources" on Sahakian's behalf. In a statement on July 20, Balasanian said Sahakian and his team "proved themselves incapable of ensuring fair elections. [The elections] were free but not fair."

Police are investigating the claim that a member of Balasanian's campaign staff was assaulted on the eve of the vote. The 110 foreign observers who monitored the election did not report any major violations on polling day.

During the election campaign, both Balasanian and the third candidate, Arkady Soghomonian, accused Sahaakian of polarizing society by his toleration of corruption, the injudicious use of budget funds, and not doing enough to try to secure the region's recognition by the international community as an independent sovereign state.

Casting his ballot in his home region of Askeran on July 19, Balasanian told journalists that even if he was not elected, "the struggle will continue. We have already achieved our minimum objectives, and Karabakh will experience a rebirth. And I would definitely declare my being in opposition."

In his July 20 statement, Balasanian, who received 32.50 percent of the vote, said the election shows that at least one-third of the population considers Sahakian's policies unacceptable and demands change. He said that figure is a good basis to form "a serious political force" whose first priority will be "to defend the rights of our citizens." He did not specify whether he envisages the Movement-88, the one political force that openly backed his candidacy, as the nucleus of that force. Movement-88 chairman and former Stepanakert mayor Eduard Agabekian was Balasanian's election campaign manager.

Sahakian's share of the vote is disappointing insofar as it is not only less than he received five years ago: his predecessors, Robert Kocharian and Arkady Ghukasian, both polled between 85-90 percent of the vote. Voter turnout on July 19 was 73.38 percent compared with 77.36 percent in 2007.

In Armenia, both the authorities and opposition representatives have commented with approval on the conduct of the vote. Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian said it demonstrated yet again the commitment of the authorities and population to democracy and the supremacy of the law.

Nalbandian's predecessor as foreign minister, Vartan Oskanian, stressed that holding free and fair elections, and thereby underscoring the huge difference in levels of democracy between Karabakh and Armenia, on the one hand, and Azerbaijan on the other, is an important precondition for eventually securing international recognition of Karabakh.

Influential Russian commentators Stanislav Tarasov and Modest Kolerov both termed the Karabakh vote free, fair, and democratic, and argued that it was tantamount to a referendum by the region's voters endorsing the concept of sovereign statehood.

The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry condemned the elections in advance as violating "the norms and principles on international law," and thus illegitimate. But the reaction of the international community was less categorical, and marked a departure from previous negative assessments. The Russian, U.S., and French co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group that for the past two decades has sought to mediate a political solution to the Karabakh conflict issued a statement acknowledging "the need for the de facto authorities in NK to try to organize democratically the public life of their population." There has been no reaction as yet to that statement from Baku.

European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton for her part said the EU "does not recognize the constitutional and legal framework" in which the election was to be held." But as analyst Sergei Minasian pointed out, that is not the same as affirming that the election itself lacked legitimacy.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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