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Karabakh Set For Tight Presidential Race


Nagorno-Karabakh - The main government buildings in Stepanakert, September 7, 2019.

Nagorno-Karabakh will hold early next year a presidential election which is expected to be the most democratic, competitive and unpredictable in its history.

The Armenian-populated territory’s foreign minister, Masis Mayilian, became on Tuesday the latest local political heavyweight to join the unfolding presidential race. In a statement posted on Facebook, he pointed to the existence of necessary “prerequisites” for the proper conduct of the vote.

Mayilian had unsuccessfully challenged Karabakh’s current president, Bako Sahakian, in a presidential election held in 2007. Sahakian is not eligible to seek another term in 2020.

Nagorno-Karabakh -- Karabakh Foreign Minister Masis Mayilian speaks to reporters in Stepanakert, September 8, 2019.
Nagorno-Karabakh -- Karabakh Foreign Minister Masis Mayilian speaks to reporters in Stepanakert, September 8, 2019.

The other major candidates are Karabakh parliament speaker, Ashot Ghulian, Arayik Harutiunian, a former Karabakh prime minister, and Vitaly Balasanian, a retired army general and Sahakian’s former top security aide.

Balasanian was sacked in June after strongly criticizing Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian. He has stepped up his verbal attacks on Pashinian since then.

Also seeking to enter the fray is Samvel Babayan, who was the commander of Karabakh’s Armenian-backed army during and after the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan. Karabakh law bars Babayan from running from president because he has lived in Armenia and Russia since 2004. The once powerful general claims to have collected earlier this year over 25,000 signatures of Karabakh residents in support of removing that legal hurdle.

Neither Sahakian nor Pashinian has endorsed any of the contenders so far. Speaking at an August 5 rally in Stepanakert, the Armenian premier said his government will act as a “guarantor” of the freedom and fairness of the 2020 ballot.

Pashinian described local elections held in Karabakh in early September as “free, fair and competitive.” Non-governmental election observers from Armenia essentially agreed with that assessment.

Nagorno-Karabakh -- Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (C), Karabakh President Bako Sahakian (R) and Archbishop Pargev Martirosian leave a newly built church in Stepanakert, May 9, 2019.
Nagorno-Karabakh -- Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (C), Karabakh President Bako Sahakian (R) and Archbishop Pargev Martirosian leave a newly built church in Stepanakert, May 9, 2019.

Harutiunian was until recently regarded by some observers as the election favorite. The former premier said on Tuesday that his Free Fatherland party, the largest in the current Karabakh legislature, will formally nominate his candidacy at a November 9 convention in Stepanakert.

“Elections in Artsakh have always been conducted at a high level,” Harutiunian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.

Manvel Sargsian, a Karabakh-born analyst based in Yerevan, disagreed, saying that Karabakh election outcomes have always been decided by administrative resources abused by establishment candidates. The forthcoming ballot will be far more democratic, he said.

“The administrative resources will not work anymore,” said Sargsian. “Why? Because those individuals who were sacked [after Armenia’s ‘Velvet Revolution’] thought that they still have some influence. These [recent local] elections showed that this is not the case.”

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