The Caucasus: DOMESTIC DEBATE MARKS KARABAKH PRESIDENTIAL VOTE

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Jul 20 21:07:15 UTC 2007


DOMESTIC DEBATE MARKS KARABAKH PRESIDENTIAL VOTE
*Text by Elizabeth Owen; Photos by Sophia Mizante 7/19/07 *

A power struggle for the presidency of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh
Republic has sparked a political debate within this disputed territory
rarely seen from the outside.

The July 19 presidential vote marks the departure of de facto President
Arkady Ghukassian from the leadership of this breakaway territory after a
decade in power. Five candidates campaigned to take his place, though the
race largely revolved around only two: Bako Saakian, the reserved
46-year-old former head of Karabakh's security service, and Masis Mailian,
the territory's media-friendly, English-speaking 39-year-old de facto deputy
foreign minister. Turnout at 5pm was put at 65.7 percent or some 60,267
voters. Polls were due to close at 8 pm local time, or 11 am New York time.

The contest has been depicted by some Western analysts as yet another
regional show-down between relatively conservative, pro-Russian forces and
relatively liberal, pro-Western forces.
The concept of such a rivalry is largely rejected within Karabakh itself,
however. "Russia is very far from Nagorno-Karabakh," commented de facto
President Ghukassian said in an interview July 18. Most people interviewed
in Karabakh characterized the race as a test of the territory's ability to
show the outside world that it possessed the democratic credentials to fend
for itself. The Mailian camp argues that this election was actually damaging
to Karabakh's democratic image, pointing out that all four parties
represented in Nagorno-Karabakh's National Assembly – including the
opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutiun and Movement 88
–endorsed Saakian. The incumbent president, Ghukassian, also backed Saakian
to be his successor. In addition, Mailian supporters have complained that
so-called administrative resources were deployed to promote Saakian's
candidacy. The alleged election violations on behalf of Saakian included
phone tapping, biased television coverage and intimidation tactics.

De facto President Ghukassian, however, rejects the allegations, insisting
that his endorsement was made "as a citizen, not as a president" and was
driven by Saakian's "unique organizational capabilities," his "sense of
responsibility" and his unchanging "principles." "Even those opposition
forces that were fighting against me have united around Bako Saakian, and
it's doubtful that my word could be decisive for them," he said with a
smile. "The process itself went on outside of my influence."

Artur Mosian, chairman of the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation
in Karabakh, maintained there was nothing illogical about the opposition's
decision to side with the two pro-government parties, the Democratic Party
of Artsakh and the Azat Hayrenik Party. The move was sparked, he said, by
the realization that "many of our worst internal and external problems"
could be solved together with Saakian. "What are we in opposition to? The
new president hasn't been elected yet, the government hasn't been formed,"
Mosian said. "If you think that [Saakian's] a pro-government candidate,
well, they're all pro-government candidates."

At least one Karabakh legislator refused to go along with the party line.
Gegam Bagdassarian, the deputy chairman of Movement 88, disassociated
himself from his party's support for Saakian and instead backed Mailian's
candidacy. "They [other Movement 88 leaders] explain [their support for
Saakian] by the fact that it's necessary to facilitate national unity. These
are lofty words, good words, but to talk about unity during elections, it's
absurd," Bagdassarian said. As for Saakian and Mailian, their campaign
platforms contained a host of similarities – a fact perhaps reflected in the
number of stores in the Karabakh capital of Stepanakert hanging both
pro-Saakian and pro-Mailian posters.

Saakian's omnibus-style program, designed to reflect all four parliamentary
parties' concerns, included everything from "[s]etting social justice as the
cornerstone of social policy" to "increasing the quality and role of
education" and "creating new jobs." In a briefing with journalists and
observers, the candidate stated that 17-hour workdays "physically" prevented
him from reading his opponents' platforms for comparison. Mailian, who
regularly monitored news to compare coverage of his campaign and Saakian's,
described his program as based on three "inter-connected" points: "real
reforms," rule of law and recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent
state.

"All developed countries, in Western Europe, the United States, reached the
heights of economic development purely thanks to the fact that they decided
to respect the law," he said. "We need to do the same."

Neither camp takes issue with the individual qualities of the opposing
candidate. "Any battle of ideas is a very positive thing for us," David
Babayan, a presidential aide who took a leave-of-absence to work for
Saakian's campaign. "The issue here isn't the person. I'd admit that he's a
good person," said Bagdassarian of Saakian. "The problem is with the forces
that support him. The forces are the current political elite that have worn
themselves out and should leave."

Meanwhile, in rain-drenched Stepanakert, residents often appeared to take
little notice of the battle. Some characterized their participation in the
election as a given, others wondered what point there was in voting in an
"already decided" contest. Said one elderly woman buying bread on a busy
sidewalk: "We can hope for the best, but, in Karabakh, we've learned to live
with whatever happens."

*Editor's Note*: Elizabeth Owen is EurasiaNet's Caucasus news editor in
Tbilisi. Sophia Mizante is a freelance photojournalist based in Tbilisi.

http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav071907f.shtml
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