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Karabakh Territory Undergoes Political Transition

The self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic has a new leader, Bako Saakian, who currently serves as the territory's security chief. Saakian has tried to cast himself as a proponent of democratization, but his policy agenda at present contains few specifics.

Saakian captured more than 85 percent of the vote in Karabakh's July 19 presidential vote, with de facto Deputy Foreign Minister Masis Mailian garnering just over 12 percent, according to final figures released by the territory's Central Election Commission. The remaining ballots were split among three other candidates. Given the lack of outside recognition of the territory's independence, the international community did not pass judgment on the legitimacy of the vote. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Despite the landslide win, Saakian has not yet issued any statements about his election. At a July 20 press conference, Mailian, his chief rival, depicted as the "pro-reform" candidate, stated that he accepted the results, and described his contest with Saakian as a sign of democratic progress for the breakaway state. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Saakian's security background - a fact often cited to indicate his alleged "pro-Russian" orientation - may be the first trait that comes to mind when outsiders analyze what lies ahead for his de facto presidency. Supporters and opponents alike, however, stressed that characterizing Saakian as a creature of the old Soviet KGB would be a mistake.

Saakian, a Stepanakert native, began his career as a mechanic, and went on to work on the restoration of historical monuments before joining the pro-independence Artsakh Movement in 1988. Toward the end of the 1988-1994 war with Azerbaijan, he acted as deputy commander of rear defenses. After additional time in the military command, and a short stint as a ministerial advisor, he was named interior minister in 1999 and appointed head of the National Security Service in 2001.

"He's not a Chekist. He's not a career representative of the special services," commented outgoing de facto President Arkady Ghukassian in an interview with EurasiaNet. "[Karabakh's] security service - and the security service of the Soviet Union are completely different things."

Mailian supporter Gegam Baghdassarian, deputy chairman of the opposition Movement 88 party, asserted that the support of security structures was less influential in securing Saakian's victory than was the strong backing of the incumbent executive, Ghukassian. "The key role was played not by the security structures, but by the president-in-office," Baghdassarian said. Ghukassian has rejected the allegation, saying that his office maintained a neutral stance during the campaign.

Both sides dismissed allegations that Russia played an influential part in Saakian's selection, while differing on Armenia's role. Outgoing President Ghukassian insisted that outside forces had, at most, a minimal influence. "The last word is left to Nagorno-Karabakh," he said. Meanwhile, Baghdassarian described alleged pro-Saakian Armenian television news programs broadcast in Karabakh as "done deliberately."

In apparent contradiction to his official responsibilities, Saakian portrayed himself as "not a pro-government candidate." To burnish his outsider image, he stressed that his candidacy was supported by a "civil initiative" that included non-governmental organizations. As if to reinforce that point, Saakian's official platform emphasized his commitment to "broadening" the role of civil society in Karabakh's affairs - a process for which there is "no alternative," he stated at a July 17 briefing.

Details of Saakian's policy goals, however, remain vague. At the briefing, Saakian stated that consideration will be given to examining the "shortcomings" of outgoing President Ghukassian's 10-year term in office, but he declined to elaborate. "I don't think there's a need to focus our attention right now on the concrete problems," he said. Ghukassian told EurasiaNet in an interview that he plans to stay in Karabakh but does not "count on holding some sort of post."

Conflict resolution with Azerbaijan, which recently hit the $1 billion mark for military spending, also looms large. Saakian has indicated that he supports "a large format" solution to the problem of Karabakh's status, with the self-declared state directly participating in the negotiations. At the same time, he declined to elaborate on concerns about Baku's military buildup, stating that this was "a question to be discussed at the negotiating table. Not with journalists." [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Few doubt that Saakian will act resolutely to defend Karabakh's political interests during the continuing peace talks.

Saakian's rival, Masis Mailian, built his campaign around commitments to strengthen the rule of law and crack down on corruption. The resulting image was one of a candidate struggling for something - an image "very much respected" in Karabakh, commented presidential administration analyst David Babayan.

Babayan, a supporter of Saakian, maintains that the territory's newly elected leader is also "a reformist," who will take into account the varying points of view of the two pro-government and two opposition parliamentary parties that supported his candidacy.

Some might question how Saakian's lack of political experience will play into his ability to maintain political unity in the territory. But Saakian sees it differently. "I was a member of the Security Council, I held a certain position in our state," he told a reporter. "If I didn't deal with politics officially, this doesn't mean that I didn't deal with politics."

Commented Babayan: "This is the balanced way. We want deep changes, but we want stability."

After over a decade of struggling to rebuild from the region's war with Azerbaijan, that message appeared to resound with many voters - at least for now. "Orderly," "honest" and "predictable" were the words most frequently used by voters to describe the former security service chief, whose win at the polls came as no surprise to most residents interviewed.

His background in intelligence is often cited as proof of an intimate knowledge of Karabakh's internal situation. "What he says he'll do, he does," said a Stepanakert gas inspector who gave his name as Vladimir and claimed personal acquaintance with Saakian. "If he says he'll solve a problem, he'll solve a problem, and, as you know, Karabakh has a lot of problems."

Added one refugee from Azerbaijan living in the southern Hradout district: "He used to be a simple person like us. Maybe that will make a difference."

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

Karabakh Territory Undergoes Political Transition

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