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Karabakh Voters Faced With Choice Between Stagnation And Change

Vitaly Balasanian (left), a former general, is the favorite.
Vitaly Balasanian (left), a former general, is the favorite.
Elections for the de facto president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic will take place on July 19. The vote, which Azerbaijan and other members of the international community regard as lacking legitimacy, is widely seen as a choice between the status quo, as exemplified by incumbent Bako Sahakian, and the political, economic, and defense-sector reforms advocated by his closest challenger, former Deputy Defense Minister and respected war hero Vitaly Balasanian.
A total of four candidates, all of them nonpartisan and all self-nominated, registered for the vote. The other two are Arkady Soghomonian, deputy rector of the Stepanakert branch of the State Agrarian University of Armenia and a former parliament deputy and Audit Chamber head; and Valery Khachatrian, an unemployed former high school teacher and parliament official. Khachatrian withdrew his candidacy on July 9, acknowledging that his chances of winning were minimal, and affirmed his support for Sahakian.
An opinion poll conducted by the website before Khachatrian quit the race reportedly found Balasanian the clear favorite, with over 45 percent support compared with 33.2 percent for Sahakian, 12 percent for Khachatrian, and 5 percent for Soghomonian.
Specifically, Balasanian enjoys the backing of respected former Foreign Minister Masis Mailian, who lost to Sahakian in the 2007 ballot; of the Karabakh Defense Army; and of demobilized veterans of the Karabakh war, who in an open letter to the Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian (who was born and grew up in Nagorno-Karabakh) appealed to him not to support Sahakian’s bid for reelection.
A retired major-general, Balasanian is 53 and from the outset played a prominent role in the campaign to bring about the transfer of the then Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast from Azerbaijani to Armenian jurisdiction. From 1991 until the 1994 cease-fire, he commanded the Karabakh Armenian forces in the eastern district of Askeran. He served from 1996-1998 as a division commander, then as deputy commander of the Karabakh Defense Army, and from October 1999-2005 as deputy defense minister.
In 2005, and again in 2010, Balasanian was elected to the republic’s parliament on the party list of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation -- Dashnaktsutiun (HHD).
Balasanian backed Sahakian’s candidacy in the 2007 election and served for three years as one of his advisers before quitting in frustration that his advice was routinely ignored. His election campaign program focuses on curtailing unnecessary budget spending, overcoming what he terms the "polarization" of society resulting from Sahakian’s unfair and discriminatory personnel policy; reviving agriculture; providing assistance to border villages; rethinking defense strategy to minimize casualties along the Line of Contact that separates the Armenian and Azerbaijani forces; and intensifying efforts to secure international recognition of the region as an independent state.
Like his rival candidates, Balasanian advocates the inclusion of representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh in the stalled talks on resolving the Karabakh conflict. He also says new proposals should be drafted to serve as a basis for negotiation. At the same time, he categorically rules out the return to Azerbaijani control of the seven districts bordering on Nagorno-Karabakh occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces in 1992-1993.
Sahakian, 51, is a former factory worker who joined the Karabakh Defense Army in 1990, and was eventually promoted to its deputy commander. In 1999 he became interior minister, then in 2001 -- security minister. He resigned from that position in June 2007 to run for the post of de facto president and was elected with 85 percent of the vote to succeed Arkady Ghukasian, who was barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term.
Under Sahakian’s watch, the region’s economy has strengthened, but his critics, including Balasanian, accuse him of condoning corruption among his immediate entourage, squandering budget funds, neglecting infrastructure and the social sphere, and not doing enough to create jobs for young men demobilized after compulsory military service. In recent interviews he admits to not having delivered on all of his 2007 campaign promises.
Soghomonian’s election program calls for strengthening democratic statehood, creating a free and fair society, increase funding for education and medicine, and preventing government officials from engaging in business activities on the side. He is pessimistic regarding the prospects for resolving the Karabakh conflict in the next five years, but supports the OSCE Minsk Group mediation and hopes it may eventually yield a long-term peace treaty.
The three parties represented in the region’s parliament -- Free Homeland, the Democratic Party of Artsakh, and the HHD -- have all expressed their support for Sahakian, as have the Communist Party and the local Federation of Trade Unions. The HHD initially backed Balasanian, who although not a HHD member is a member of its parliament faction. But the party withdrew that backing in early June, before campaigning officially got under way, due to unspecified “disagreements.”

In contrast to 2007, when the entire political spectrum aligned in support of Sahakian, five other officially registered political parties have declined to back any candidate; only the Movement -88 unequivocally supports Balasanian. But as Balasanian’s campaign manager, Movement-88 chairman and former Stepanakert mayor Eduard Agabekian points out, statements of support from political parties are unlikely to influence the election outcome because only between 1-2 percent of the population belong to a political party. The total number of registered voters is 98,772.
Even before campaigning began on June 20, Balasanian formally complained to the Central Election Commission that local officials were agitating on Sahakian’s behalf. The Central Election Commission denied this. The four candidates then concluded an agreement to work together to ensure the vote is just and transparent. Sahakian’s spokesman David Babayan told the Armenian daily “Hayots ashkhar” in late June that "a level playing field has been ensured 100 percent." But Balasanian’s campaign staff have since alleged that the authorities are intimidating voters and warning them not to vote for him.
How effective that official pressure will prove to be is impossible to predict. But it seems unlikely that this election will duplicate the results of the four previous presidential ballots (in 1996, 1997, 2002, and 2007) since the region unilaterally proclaimed its independence from Azerbaijani in 1991. On every occasion, the winner has garnered between 85 and 90 percent of the vote.

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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