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Bitter Military Losses Lead To Power Struggle In Nagorno-Karabakh

The de facto president of Nagorno-Karabakh, Arayik Harutiunian (right), and the region's security chief, Vitaly Balasanian (left), seem to be vying for control and influence in the disputed territory. (file photo)

YEREVAN -- More than five months after the guns fell silent on the battlefields of Nagorno-Karabakh, the dust is settling in the halls of power in Stepanakert, the disputed region's de facto capital.

In Karabakh's very opaque political environment, however, it's not entirely clear who has come out on top after the 44-day Second Karabakh War won convincingly by Azerbaijan late last year.

There are two men who appear to be in close competition to control the Azerbaijani region predominantly inhabited by ethnic Armenians: de facto President Arayik Harutiunian and the region's influential security chief, Vitaly Balasanian.

Harutiunian has led the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, as it's known by Armenians, since his victory in the March 2020 presidential election.

That vote was by far the most competitive in Karabakh's post-Soviet history and saw Harutiunian -- who was prime minister from 2007 to 2017 -- emerge victorious in a runoff after securing just under 50 percent of the vote in the first round.

One of his opponents in that first round was Vitaly Balasanian, a former general-turned-opposition leader who garnered nearly 15 percent of the vote, finishing third.

But after the dismal showing in the war with Azerbaijan led to unhappiness with Nagorno-Karabakh's leadership, Balasanian is now poised to be the president's main challenger domestically.

Defeat Brings Change

The crushing defeat resulted in a major political shakeup in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In the months following the November 10 cease-fire deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan -- which was brokered by Russia -- nearly all of the region's cabinet ministers were replaced.

Harutiunian himself said he would resign at some unannounced date and leave politics -- something he has not yet done.

Arayik Harutiunian (file photo)
Arayik Harutiunian (file photo)

In the meantime, Balasanian was appointed by Harutiunian on December 2 as head of Karabakh's powerful Security Council, the chief military body for the region. Harutiunian also announced two weeks later that Karabakh's armed forces were subordinate to the council, effectively granting huge power to Balasanian.

That move led many to speculate that he would formally replace Harutiunian as Karabakh leader and had, in fact, already garnered sufficient power to exercise authority in the breakaway state.

Who Holds The Most Power?

But it is still unclear which of the two men has more influence in Karabakh.

Emil Sanamyan, a fellow at the University of Southern California's Institute of Armenian Studies, thinks Balasanian is indeed in the ascendent.

Sanamyan said it seems "very likely" that Balasanian will replace Harutiunian as Karabakh's president. "The question is when that might happen," he added, pointing out that Karabakh is not in a position to hold an election anytime soon.

Sanamyan suggested Harutiunian might thus remain as a figurehead, the formal leader in Karabakh but with Balasanian exercising "effective commander in chief powers."

Vitaly Balasanian (file photo)
Vitaly Balasanian (file photo)

Balasanian gained prominence in the First Karabakh War as head of the Askeran regiment that spearheaded the operation to seize the Azerbaijani city of Agdam in 1993, resulting in tens of thousands of ethnic Azeris being expelled.

He left the army in 2005 to join Karabakh's political opposition, making a name for himself as "the opposition general."

He ran for president of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2012, finishing second. He first served as head of the Security Council from 2016 to 2019.

In the last two years he became known for his political stances, particularly his strident opposition to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, whom Balasanian slammed as a "Western stooge."

Arayik Harutiunian (left) and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (file photo)
Arayik Harutiunian (left) and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (file photo)

Some people think his opposition to the previously popular Pashinian and his first tenure heading the Security Council has cost him politically.

"In 2016, [Balasanian] became the head of the security council [Nagrono-Karabakh], joining a small group of 'siloviki'" in the region, said an Armenian official with knowledge of Karabakh politics, speaking on condition of anonymity. "This was the turning point for him. The modest, noncorrupt general became part of the most corrupt group in Karabakh."

Sanamyan has a completely different view of Balasanian. "He is a man of integrity and not known for any criminal or corrupt activity," he said.

And Then There's Russia

The narrative about the rise of Balasanian has grown beyond what the situation in Stepanakert reflects, said the anonymous official.

"There's a real hype around [Balasanian], especially in Yerevan, but this doesn't reflect reality," the official said. "Balasanian doesn't have the administrative resources [that Harutiunian] does and there are only three members of parliament [from his party]," he added.

Russian peacekeepers on the move in Nagorno-Karabakh late last year.
Russian peacekeepers on the move in Nagorno-Karabakh late last year.

But observers warn that the political savvy of Harutiunian should not be discounted.

"Arayik [Harutiunian] has effectively consolidated power in the last few months," the official continued. "He has tied everyone to him by bringing them into his cabinet. There is a joke right now in Karabakh: if you want to be a minister, just criticize [Harutiunian]," he explained. "I don't think Balasanian has anywhere near the influence [that Harutiunian] has," he said.

Whatever the true balance of power behind the scenes, many think that both men are still playing second fiddle to the real authority in town: Russia.

"De facto, real authority [in Karabakh] is now in Russia's hands," said Benyamin Poghosian, chairman of the Yerevan-based Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies. "[Rustam] Muradov, the Russian peacekeeping head [in Karabakh], is the No. 1 guy. The Karabakh government does still function, but [the situation is] somewhere between strong Russian influence and de facto control."

General Rustam Muradov (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (file photo)
General Rustam Muradov (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (file photo)

For the time being at least, Harutiunian and Balasanian appear to be prepared to try to ride out the tough situation in the sparsely populated, war-torn region, which Armenian forces controlled from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 until last year.

"I don't think [Harutiunian] is going anywhere," said the official. "A few months ago, when people were demanding his resignation, he said he wouldn't leave because the Russians want him there. He has very good relations [with Muradov]."

"There's some speculation that [Harutiunian] will resign on May 21, the one-year anniversary [of his swearing-in as president], but I'm not sure," said Poghosian. "Many people also think he will stay [in office beyond that date]."

Of course high politics are currently of little concern to the average Karabakh Armenian civilian, many of whom are still reeling from the bitter defeat in the war, which led to large swaths of territory being taken by Azerbaijani forces.

"It's hard to speculate about [politics and] policies considering the situation [Karabakh] finds itself in," Sanamyan concludes. "The priority [is] people's security."