Domestic Debate Marks Karabakh Presidential Vote

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."

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

Domestic Debate Marks Karabakh Presidential Vote

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