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Opinion | Competitive politics is returning to Nagorno-Karabakh

27 August 2019

The Velvet Revolution has shaken up politics in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the 2020 elections may spell an end for the republic’s old regime. 

Since the declaration of its independence in 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh has walked a long and bumpy political road.

In the 1990s, the military establishment, which played a crucial role in the war of independence, held the real power in the country and practically controlled the entire decision-making process. The political system of the republic was poorly institutionalised and underdeveloped.

Nonetheless, Armenia’s influence on the domestic politics of Nagorno-Karabakh was relatively restricted. Moreover, Nagorno-Karabakh’s military elite was a factor to be reckoned with in Armenia’s political life. Their role in the resignation in 1998 of the first post-soviet Armenian president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, is widely acknowledged.

Rule from Yerevan

However, from the early 2000s, Armenia’s ruling elite, whose key members started their political careers in Nagorno-Karabakh, took charge and gradually diminished the role and the influence of Nagorno-Karabakh’s military and political establishment. Yerevan went to great lengths to undermine all democratic processes in Nagorno-Karabakh and further curtail the autonomy of its political elite.

This process reached its apogee in 2007, when the Armenian elite followed a popular post-Soviet trend by handpicking Nagorno-Karabakh’s National Security Service head, Bako Sahakyan, as its candidate for the next president of the republic.

Sahakyan, a man of modest talents and mediocre ability, utilised the endorsement of Armenia’s ruling regime and won the 2007 presidential elections with ease. He then became a mere puppet of new Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan in Nagorno-Karabakh and eliminated the last remnants of genuine political competition in the country.

For more than a decade, Sahakyan was the bulwark of Sargsyan’s regime and provided assistance to his patron whenever needed. During his presidency, Nagorno-Karabakh became an obedient proxy of Armenia. In exchange for his unwavering loyalty, Sahakyan was given a free hand in Nagorno-Karabakh’s domestic politics and was provided with all the necessary resources for the maintenance of absolute political dominance in the country.

Under these circumstances, Karabakh’s political system turned into window dressing for a small but powerful informal group, which monopolised the decision-making process in the country.

For more than a decade, Nagorno-Karabakh’s domestic politics were extremely predictable, boring, and uncompetitive. Losing their autonomy, nearly all political actors simply started following orders coming from the president’s office. As a result, public interest towards the country’s political life waned and a vast majority of the population became depoliticised.

The revolution

The Velvet Revolution in Armenia completely changed the political landscape in Nagorno-Karabakh. Karabakh’s ruling elite found itself utterly baffled amidst the drastic political changes in Armenia. The political hierarchy that was in place for decades crumbled overnight, and created a power vacuum. The decision-making process in the republic became paralysed, at least for a little while.

Protests and demonstrations became the new normal in a country which had endured a lengthy period of civic and political stagnation. More than 20 demonstrations with different demands have taken place in Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh] since the revolution. New political parties began to spring up like mushrooms after rain.

The leaders of the formally ruling parties gradually came to an understanding that they were at last free to make independent decisions without anyone else’s sanction or approval. Competitive politics had returned to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Now we have a situation where, for the first time in the history of the republic, the ruling elite is split into several camps with different agendas, which have to compete for the support base of the ruling regime.

Electoral competition

Although the presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in March 2020, the republic’s main political actors have already kickstarted their campaigns. A number of potential presidential candidates have emerged who hold rallies in different parts of the country on a constant basis, trying to strengthen their local party cells, recruit new members, and present their vision for the future.

The fact that both the presidential and parliamentary elections will take place on the same day has created incentives for all the parties intending to run for parliament, to have a candidate for president, as it won’t require additional funds.

There are several camps in the ruling and opposition elites which try to exploit various narratives for political gain. The siloviki camp, which consists of retired generals and other officials working in the security system, is trying to utilise ‘a country under siege’ narrative.

They are heavily engaged in scaremongering and warn the general public, from time to time, about the danger of a new outbreak of war, and try to present themselves as the only force capable of defending the homeland.

Vitali Balasanyan, a war hero and the former head of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Security Council, is the candidate of this informal group. However, the generals do not have a strong political base and will struggle to attract sympathisers in a competitive democratic process.

The oligarchic camp is the second major group in the ruling elite. For more than a decade, members of this group have been using their privileged positions to enrich themselves and control the country’s economy. In contrast to the first group, they are quite institutionalised. They are united in Nagorno-Karabakhs’s biggest political party — the Free Motherland Party.

The oligarchs are already using their vast financial resources accumulated throughout the years to recruit supporters, by giving them low-interest loans and other perks. Former Prime Minister Arayik Harutyunyan leads this party. He has already announced his decision to run for president in 2020. Harutyunyan and his fellow party members promise to the people of Nagorno-Karabakh economic development, large-scale investments, and prosperity. Ironically enough, they might be the single biggest barrier for achieving these goals.

The other two formally ruling parties — the Democratic Party of Artsakh and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), will also most likely present candidates for the office of the president. Nevertheless, their chances to succeed are meagre without the use of administrative resources and the internal struggle inside the ruling regime will make it very difficult to secure such resources. Each of them will struggle to match their results from the last parliamentary elections.

The post-revolutionary liberalisation in Nagorno-Karabakh created a huge space for political opposition in the country. Lots of people who were not willing to engage in politics before the Velvet Revolution are becoming politically active now.

The vast majority of the parties established after the changes in Armenia are opposed to Nagorno-Karabakh’s ruling regime. But, the problem with these new forces is their lack of political knowledge and experience. They are often naive in their actions and their understanding of policy issues, which is why nearly all of them resort to populist messages to attract new supporters.

Samvel Babayan, the commander of Nagorno-Karabakh’s defence army during the war, is the most prominent figure among the new opposition. He has a sizeable support base and is seen by many as a strongman who is capable of defeating the ruling elite and improving the living conditions of the common people.

However, he hasn’t lived in or been a citizen of Nagorno-Karabakh for the last 10 years, meaning the country’s constitution prohibits him from running for president. Babayan initiated a process to change the constitution but he hasn’t got much of a chance to succeed.

The biggest opposition party in Nagorno-Karabakh is the National Revival Party (NRP), which I sit on the board of. It was established in 2013, uniting activists who were opposed to the ruling regime. Before the Velvet Revolution it was the only opposition party in the republic.

The National Revival Party will participate in both parliamentary and presidential elections running on an anti-corruption and pro-democracy platform. Our party promotes decentralisation of power, separation of business from political power, deregulation, economic liberalisation, and other market-oriented reforms. The party aspires to become the main alternative to the ruling regime and prevent its victory in 2020.

All things considered, it is almost certain that the 2020 presidential elections will go to a second round of voting. If a strong opposition force emerges that is capable of consolidating the segment of society longing for change, it will have a very good chance of defeating the candidates from the ruling elite.

If either of the camps of the ruling regime manages to come to power, Artsakh will have to endure another period of stagnation. However, one thing is already clear — because of the political liberalisation caused by Armenia’s Velvet Revolution, in 2020, Nagorno-Karabakh will have the most competitive elections in its history.

The opinions expressed and place names and terminology used in this article are the words of the author alone, and may not necessarily reflect the views of OC Media’s editorial board.

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