CIVIL SOCIETY, DEMOCRATIC ELECTIONS, AND SETTLEMENT OF THE KARABAKH CONFLICT
Naira Airumian, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper Azat Artsakh (Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic)
The elections in the countries on the opposite sides of the Karabakh-Azerbaijan conflict seem to have pushed peaceful settlement of the conflict into the background. Experts are unanimously claiming that until the parliamentary election campaign in Armenia and the presidential campaign in Azerbaijan are over, there is little hope of the settlement process getting back off the ground. Nevertheless, it would do no harm to find out what influence the elections that have already taken place in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, in particular the presidential election in September 2002, may be having on the peace talks. Whereby it is not the personalities who came to power that are important, but the extent to which the citizens of Nagorny Karabakh succeeding in showing the world how intent they are on holding peace talks and building a democratic and law-based state.
Brief History of the Building of a Civil Society in Post-Soviet Karabakh
During the past decade, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which declared its independence in 1992, has taken a path that resembles fast forwarded scenes from a filmstrip showing the history of the long sovereign European nations. In a very short space of time, this republic has charged at breakneck speed through a national liberation war, a reactionary regime, and a change in power and social formations. And what’s more, these formations frequently followed one behind the other in a way that ran counter to the generally accepted scenario. And each of them gave rise to specific political forces and personalities who did what they came to do and then faded into the background.
The liberation movement at the beginning of the 1990s, which became a struggle for survival, put forward its own leaders. And whereas at first those at the helm of the national liberation movement were party leaders and heroes of the era of socialism, during the first military campaigns, young, energetic, cocksure people took over the national liberation struggle and climbed to the top of the political Olympus. During the active phase of the hostilities, when Azerbaijan was reactionary and actively deported Armenians from Karabakh and when the former party leaders, still fearing Soviet totalitarianism, took leave of the controls but the newly baked commanders of the self-defense contingents had not yet reached the “steering wheel,” the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutiun (ARFD) found itself in charge of the country. It succeeded in becoming a consolidated and consolidating power capable of repulsing the enemy. It embodied the most radical members of the younger and middle-aged generations. The Supreme Soviet of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) of the first convocation was primarily made up of its members. The first parliament chairman was ARFD representative Artur Mkrtchian. At that time, the Dashnaks, as they were called, also had immense influence in turbulent Armenia.
The situation began changing when Levon Ter-Petrossian gained a stronger foothold in Armenia. The Dashnaks were ousted and persecuted, which ended in a veto being placed on the party’s activity in the republic and was accompanied by scandalous court trials. Nor did the young, mobile and consolidated military-police-political elite of Karabakh, which had become extremely influential by this time, stand by and just watch what was going on. After “peacefully” removing the Dashnaks from the political scene, it soon became the “brains and brawn” of power in Nagorny Karabakh. But perhaps the main reason for the “velvet” revolution in Karabakh was the change in tune in settlement of the military conflict. The Armenian leadership became increasingly inclined toward resolving it peacefully and by means of compromise, convincing the Karabakh authorities, who were recognized in the world at that time as legitimate, to make certain concessions. But the Dashnak government of the NKR refused to yield even one iota of the ground they had gained, and gradually all questions, both military and social, were decided by the State Defense Committee. The revolution can also be called “velvet” because the Dashnaks had no insatiable cravings for power, since, first, they had liberating goals in mind, second, sufficiently altruistic people had come to power on the crest of the national movement, and third, judging from the Dashnaks’ history, this party does not like taking responsibility for defeat.
The ascension to power of a new military-political “alliance of the strong” coincided with a turning point in the hostilities. The people of Karabakh had managed to liberate a large area of occupied territory and create a security zone around the NKR. The postwar period was intent on one thing—no alienation. The people forgave the military commanders for all their sins, getting rich fast and abusing power, and accepted the only truth they knew: you don’t change horses at the river crossing, and internal instability always causes irritation on the front line.
Despite the fact there were legally elected authorities in the country, the rich and strong junta became authoritatively totalitarian and tried to control all spheres of life. During this time, political life in Karabakh became as passive as it could get. A feeling of fear and the real prospect of political persecution gave the slumbering political establishment no opportunity to spread its wings, never mind raise its head. At that time, the actively promulgated but by now extremely jaded idea of unity became infested with “termites,” who fed on the desire of other forces, particularly those with the voters’ mandate, to break onto the political arena, as well as on their personal ambitions, the growing discontent of the people, and, of course, the geopolitical processes going on in the region.
Finally a split occurred both on the political front, and in the public consciousness. The forces invested with the people’s mandate and headed by the legitimate president began a “crusade” against authoritarianism, encouraging those who wanted to find a legal solution to all the questions. The struggle turned into an open confrontation between Defense Minister Samvel Babaian and President Arkady Gukasian. At some point someone’s nerves could stand it no longer and an assassination attempt was made on the president, during which he was seriously injured. The ex-defense minister was accused of organizing the assassination and sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment.
This was more than symptomatic. The court proceedings involving the organizers and executors of the assassination attempt were open to the mass media. However, the people of Karabakh did not get particularly excited about this scandal, since they believed that Samvel Babaian was not being tried so much for the assassination attempt as for the military dictatorial regime he almost succeeded in establishing in Karabakh. Foreign journalists could not get over the “passivity” of the Karabakhians, who did not raise a furor or organize any meetings in defense of their national hero. But the people chose the legal way to resolve this domestic political conflict.
After the trial, a rather strange situation developed in Karabakh. The authorities set their sights on building a democratic state and began taking steps in this direction, while the people became even more apathetic and passive.
Building a Civil Society
The results of the presidential elections held on 11 August, 2002 inspired certain hopes for intensifying the democratic processes and an objective personnel policy. More than fifty international observers declared the elections democratic. It was stated that a democratic state was being built in Karabakh, which would find it relatively easy to become integrated into the world community. The observers noted the insufficiently active participation of the NKR’s public and political organizations in the election campaign as a negative aspect. At a press conference organized on the eve of the elections, a member of the British Helsinki Group made an extensive effort to find out how many local public organizations or individual officials were registered as observers. The answer turned out to be none. As the chairman of the Central Election Commission explained, according to the law, an organization that announces its support of a particular candidate is deprived of the right to participate as an observer. Nevertheless, a group of Karabakh’s public organizations announced their intention to monitor the election campaign, and after 11 August they made their conclusion public.
The authorities believe that there are no obstacles to developing a public sector in Karabakh, and that it is probably more a matter of the NKR’s underdeveloped sociopolitical sphere. What is more, experts say that the republic’s legislation does indeed permit individuals and organizations to carry out public activity. Laws have already been adopted on public organizations, trade unions, and public television, and a draft law on parties is being prepared. But there is still little inkling to reinforce civil processes from the grass roots. Perhaps this is because many people believe that democracy and other freedoms are for rich countries. Karabakh has plenty of other worries, which can be seen from the election campaign meetings of the presidential candidates. Not may voters thought to ask them why freedom of speech in the republic is in such dire straits. The discussion concentrated more and more on the most important things: the settlement process, pensions, jobs, and so on.
In so doing, many western human rights activists, who are used to fighting to protect the rights of women, children, invalids, religious sects, and so on, who are discriminated against, state that in Karabakh many of these phenomena do not exist (or are currently within “reasonable” limits). There is no blatant discrimination against women or selling them into slavery by deceitful means (trafficking) in Karabakh, nor is there legalized prostitution, as in some countries, a widespread gambling business, criminal groups, or the yellow press, not to mention discrimination against animals. The observers also noted the absence of dirty tricks and mud-slinging during the elections. In particularly, Russian representative V. Spektor noted: “You are lucky, there is nothing in your country to suggest that a small number of people, a clan or group, is robbing the rest of the population.”
Nevertheless, public activity and public control in the NKR are rather weak, so the ordinary citizen is not protected (from the tyranny of the authorities, criminal groups, and judges), just as categories of the population created by the war (invalids, the families of those killed), the rights of the independent press, and the right to participate in the legislative and executive structures are not protected. The political scene, which livened up temporarily on the eve of the presidential elections, has fallen into a state of lethargy once more. Not a single public or political organization, even one represented in parliament, openly declared the desire to become a member of the government, most of them held their tongues or complained about the lack of finances and the international blockade.
Of course, there are some active public structures: the Stepanakert press club, which participates in several regional projects, the Traditsiia Cultural Center, and the Vogi Nairi Art Center. Humanitarian organizations are particularly active: the Society for the Families of Missing Soldiers and Those Killed in Battle, the Union of Veterans of the Artsakh War, the Rehabilitation Center, and the recently founded Center of Civilian Initiative, which has joined up with Prison Reform International. In 2002, seven nongovernmental organizations formed the Public Development Foundation, but so far no funds have been allotted to it.
The elections are having a perceptible effect, both in the negative and positive respect, on the building of a civil society in Nagorny Karabakh. Since the NKR declared its independence, parliamentary elections have been held three times, presidential elections just as many times, and elections to the local self-government structures twice. In May 1990, the people of Karabakh elected deputies to the Supreme Soviet of the Armenian S.S.R., and on 10 December, 1991, a referendum on independence was held, during which most civilians lived in basements. Observers and foreign journalists who represented influential Russian mass media, such as Literaturnaia gazeta, Megapolis-express, Izvestia, the magazine Stolitsa, radio Ekho Moskvy, and the second state television channel, as well as Agence France-Presse, and Bulgarian and American television companies, made their rounds of the polling stations under fire and in their conclusion declared the universal referendum on independence to be legitimate. And not long after, on 28 December, the first elections to the Supreme Soviet of the NKR were held. Well-known leaders of the national liberation movement were elected as its deputies. In April 1995, the NKR parliament of the second convocation was elected, the observers at the elections were deputies from the German Bundestag and Russian State Duma, as well as representatives of international and public organizations, and the foreign mass media.
On 24 November, 1996, the first elections for president were held. Robert Kocharian claimed the position, winning the election campaign over two rivals. Prior to this, he was the head of the State Defense Committee, the structure that essentially ran the country. The election campaign was covered by about thirty journalists from leading French, Russian, and Armenian mass media. This was perhaps the first political undertaking in the NKR that aroused a negative reaction from Azerbaijan.
On 1 September, 1997, a special presidential election was held. Arkady Gukasian was the winner from among three candidates. During the election campaign, topics surfaced that had previously been tabooed. Admittedly, not everything was discussed, or to the full extent, but definite progress was made.
The second half of 1998 was marked by the first election to the local self-government structures. And whereas in the regions and rural communities, the election campaign was not a particularly hot issue, the competition for mayor of the NKR capital, Stepanakert, aroused a certain amount of interest. Karen Babaian (the brother of Defense Minister Samvel Babaian) was running for mayor. His rival was a representative of the Armenian revolutionary faction, Dashnaktsutiun. The number of votes he gained was evidence that the days of the Babaians’ undivided rule had come to an end, and also showed that a political confrontation was brewing in Karabakh society.
In June 2000, elections were held to the National Assembly of the third convocation, in which the representatives of different political parties balloted. According to the results of the voting, factions were formed in the parliament for the first time. Another innovation during these elections was the open struggle that escalated into court trials, which brought victory to a non-progovernment candidate.
But the elections to the local self-government structures on 6 September, 2001 did not arouse any particular fervor. The progovernment movement, the Democratic Artsakh Union (DAU), which was formed not long before the parliamentary elections and was supported by the state sector, ran such a powerful propaganda campaign and public opinion was so atrophied that their results were beyond any doubt.
A particular place among the elections, which were being held almost every year, was occupied by the next presidential election on 11 August, 2002. First, it could be seen that the authorities were interested in their objective coverage, as well as in information on the democratic nature of this process being as widely disseminated as possible. What is more, the authorities did not resort to dirty political tricks, but used entirely acceptable and civilized methods. A well-equipped press center was organized under the Central Election Commission, and observers and journalists were given complete freedom to visit the polling stations, as well as the opportunity to meet with the voters and candidates.
The Situation before the Elections
The analysis of civil society in the NKR shows not so much the importance of the presidential election per se, as the situation that preceded it. It was more than symptomatic with respect to its passivity and lack of conflict. More than seventy public and political organizations, many of which exist “on paper,” were registered with the NKR Department of Justice. The most influential political organization in scope and numbers is the progovernment movement, the Democratic Artsakh Union, which was formed on the eve of the parliamentary elections in 2000. This structure compensates for its lack of political experience and its inner fluctuations by means of its levers within the state bureaucracy.
The second most influential, and perhaps the first most organized, is the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutiun, which has ten years of experience working in the Karabakh government. Calling itself the constructive opposition, it gained almost a third of the seats in parliament, but did not nominate a candidate for the presidential election.
In the final months before the election, the communist party, encouraged by the authorities, became more active. Not wishing to see the more radical Dashnaks among the opposition, the authorities preferred to deal with the communists.
Several centrist liberal-democratic parties did not draw attention to themselves. Nor was there a movement among the so-called extreme opposition, which united the supporters of ex-defense minister Samvel Babaian, who was serving a prison term for organizing an assassination attempt on NKR President Arkady Gukasian. This was apparently due to both the dearth of obvious political leaders, and to the real assessment of public opinion, which was not inclined to support radical changes in the power structures.
Perhaps a special feature of the period prior to the elections was the blatant lack of alternative to the candidacy of then president Arkady Gukasian. The results of sociological polls also showed the absence of any party leaders or vibrant political figures, on whom stakes are usually placed. What is more, the main political parties, Dashnaktsutiun and the communists, announced their unconditional support of the president’s foreign policy, although they had some complaints about his economic and social programs.
The presidential election was particularly important in light of the Karabakh peace talks. The mediators stated more than once that certain terms had been reached, but the problem was how to bring the “degree of compromises” to the people of the conflicting sides. It is obvious that in this context, outside forces and Armenia also wanted to see “their” man as the leader of Nagorny Karabakh. The outcome of the election campaign might also have an impact on the political processes in Armenia, where a presidential election was in the offing. It is no secret that its political leadership considers its top priority to be settlement of the Karabakh problem. Consequently, “good” relations with the NKR leadership could be a trump card for the political forces striving for supreme power in Armenia.
The cautious and apathetic mood of Karabakh society tired of the war, the postwar syndromes, the domestic political upheavals, and the bureaucratic calamities should also be added to all these factors.
On 14 August, the results of the presidential election were publicized. International observers and mass media representatives from more than fifty-five countries affirmed that it had been very well organized and properly conducted. According to the final tallies, 75.7% of the voters living in the republic participated in the voting. Broken down into regions, voter participation looked as follows: 52.1% in Stepanakert, 94.1% in the Askeran, 91.3% in the Mardakert, 82.2% in the Martuni, 84.4% in the Gadrut, 93.4% in the Shusha, 95.3% in the Shaumianovsk, and 87.5% in the Kashatag regions. Arkady Gukasian was re-elected president of the NKR.
At a briefing convened by a group of observers from Armenia, Ovannes Ovannisian, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of this country’s National Assembly, said that the group’s representatives had visited about twenty polling stations. “We intend to send information about the results of the elections to the Council of Europe and other international organizations, regardless of whether they want to recognize the NKR as an independent state or not,” he said. When answering journalists’ questions about the statements made by some countries, as well as by influential international organizations, including the Council of Europe and the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, on the illegitimacy of the presidential election in the NKR, Mr. Ovannisian noted that the final results would nevertheless make them reconsider.
Approximately $50,000 was allotted for the entire election campaign. Each candidate received $300 for this purpose.
Observers from many countries of the world followed the course of the election. They included those invited from the U.S., Russia, Great Britain, Italy, the Dniester area, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. Members of the Russian group emphasized in particular that the election for president of Nagorny Karabakh could in no way hinder peaceful settlement of the conflict, and was not a threat to either the integrity or security of Azerbaijan. American congressman, Frank Pallone, noted that the elections were extremely important since they proved to the world that democratic processes were going on in Nagorny Karabakh and that the people approved of them. James Hooper, ex-official of the U.S. State Department, called the “best part” about the Karabakh election to be the fact that “both the people and the authorities demonstrated their determination not to allow the military to influence civil processes.”
Hindrances to Building a Civil Society
Democratic traditions and a law-abiding mentality are inherent of Karabakh society. But seventy years of Soviet power, active military campaigns, postwar totalitarianism, and fear of major change that threatens renewed hostility are hindering the building of an open democratic society in the NKR. The authorities’ ambiguous approach to democratic values is also an obstacle. What is more, the nongovernmental organizations currently functioning in the country have no way of entering the international arena, no ties with international and human activist organizations, and no access to sponsorship foundations. Potential sponsors frequently refuse to cooperate with Karabakh NGOs, since Nagorny Karabakh is not officially recognized as an independent state. Nor are there enough public figures and organizations in the republic itself capable of drawing up programs and projects that could draw the attention of international sponsors.
One of the main problems when building a democratic society is the absence of an independent press. Attempts to found a nongovernmental newspaper have already been made. A newspaper called 10-ia provintsiia came out, which assessed events in a way that radically differed from the viewpoint of the authorities. Some public-political organizations, such as the Dashnaks, communists, and progovernment structures, have their own printed matter. But there is no independent publication or information agency in Karabakh.
Reference. According to the Stepanakert press club, a sociological poll it conducted in cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Erevan Center of Public Technologies revealed that 48.7 percent of the respondents do not consider the NKR a democratic country, only 30.2 percent believe that it is, while 63.3 percent think that the Karabakh mass media do not cover the events in the country objectively and in full, and only 18.2 percent have a positive opinion of the local mass media (the rest did not know). Fifty-nine point nine percent of the respondents think that the NKR authorities do not take heed of public opinion, and six percent of those interviewed are of a diametrically opposite opinion.
Public Opinion and Conflict Settlement
It is no secret that public opinion can be both a way for society to have an influence on the authorities, and a product of the activity of these authorities. The Azerbaijan newspaper Ekho writes that it does not necessarily take signing a document that certain circles do not approve to cause an outburst of fervor and have presidents accused of “treachery,” it is quite enough for someone to fabricate an information leak. “And this means that the sides today like never before are close not only to peace, but also to an uncontrollable development in events,” writes the newspaper. Nevertheless, it is not only the authorities leading the negotiations, but also the mediators, who have to think about stability in the region if a particular decision is made, who need to hear the opinion of all the sides in the conflict.
It appears that people in Azerbaijan are well aware of this truth. Although part of society perceives the overly active declarations by various orientations of Azerbaijan parties, public organizations, and individuals about how “territorial integrity is sacred” and “there is no Azerbaijan without Karabakh” as “no-lose” populist statements, they are nevertheless creating a stubborn streak in public consciousness. What is more, the desire “to bargain” inherent in the eastern mentality is having its say, proceeding in so doing from the principle: “The higher you put the price, the more you will sell it for.”
Public opinion in Armenia is much more restrained. The mass media, refraining from making any comments, are restricting themselves largely to informative reports for the record on the progress of the negotiations. Whereas in Azerbaijan both optimistic and skeptical opinions about the peace talks are expressed with equal success, in Armenia there is a certain level of trust in the authorities, who “are unlikely to betray Karabakh’s interests.” The Armenian National Movement (ANM), which was in power until 1998, is essentially the only one making any “noise” by accusing the authorities of “selling out” on Karabakh, either because it feels its political ambitions have been infringed upon, or because it is “closely acquainted” with the viewpoint of the mediators. However, despite tense expectations, public opinion in the country is generally calm.
All is calm in Stepanakert too. And although it can be assumed that behind the outer tight-lipped attitude of the people of Karabakh there lurks extreme tension, everyone is nevertheless trying to refrain from any rash statements. There are reasons for this. First, from the purely domestic political viewpoint, there is no opposition either to the republic’s own authorities, or to the authorities of Armenia. Second, the people of Karabakh have been brought up with a sense of civil responsibility, and each person justifiably (although rather naively) believes that the opinion he expresses publicly may be inappropriately perceived and be grounds for speculation abroad. Third, the people are simply worn out. They have done all they could do—win the war. And in this respect, a certain amount of social apathy is entirely understandable: people believe that it is the authorities’ duty to reinforce de jure at the diplomatic level what has been won de facto. Respect for those who fell in battle is not a reason to give up what has been won—this is clearly what the people think. The border and status of Karabakh were formed during the hostilities, it won the battle for the survival of the fittest and so is worthy of recognition.
This is precisely what the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutiun has based its standpoint on. This faction in the Artsakh parliament is in favor of the NKR participating in the negotiations, but against signing any agreements without taking into account the opinion of the Karabakh people. In so doing, the opinion of the Democratic Artsakh Union faction, which has the parliamentary majority, does not differ much from the viewpoint of the ARFD. Faction Chairman Janna Galstian stated that they fully support the viewpoint of the NKR president that Karabakh will not accept agreements contradicting its vital interests. Let us remember that NKR President Arkady Gukasian announced his clear-cut opinion on participation in the talks. If an agreement is reached on joining Artsakh and Armenia, the question of Karabakh’s participation will no longer be an issue; otherwise it will come forward in favor of its independence.
Judging by this and other statements, Karabakh society will not accept any agreements signed at the supreme level that go against the key goals for the sake of which the national movement began. And society’s apparent passivity could turn in the opposite direction at any moment. What is more, no one in Karabakh, or on the other side of the border wants war (even despite the battle cries coming from Baku), particularly since the superpowers and forces with interests in the Southern Caucasus also agree that stability is of prime importance in the region.
Meanwhile, reports keep appearing that show some signs of the settlement process being stepped up. They are acquiring particular importance in light of the events going on in the world and the ever expanding antiterrorist movement. When answering the questions of journalists about the parallels between the Chechen and the Karabakh problems, Russian Ambassador to Azerbaijan N. Riabov noted that the U.N. Security Council recognized some Chechen organizations as terrorist, but nothing of the sort had been, or indeed could be, implied about Nagorny Karabakh. Similar opinions were expressed by officials in Washington and Paris. But in light of the ambiguous evaluations of the presidential election in Armenia by observers from the OSCE and Council of Europe, it will be more difficult for Erevan to fight for provisions of a comprehensive agreement that are advantageous to the Armenian people. Experts believe that the European parliamentary deputies gave such a harsh assessment of this election because they wanted to acquire trump cards that would enable them to put pressure on the Armenian leadership in the settlement of the Karabakh problem.
At the same time, the international observers welcomed the fact that despite the tense political atmosphere, there were no serious incidents between the two rounds of the presidential election in Armenia, and they were also pleased to note that the broad public and local groups of observers took active part in the election campaign.
The Azeri mass media immediately responded to the statement by the international representatives. For example, certain authors claim that the attitude toward Robert Kocharian, the newly elected president of the country, would change in Europe. When discussing the television debates he held during the election campaign with the other candidate, K. Demirchian, Baku journalists noted in particular the “more radical” standpoint of the opposition candidate in the Karabakh question. By the way, during a television debate, K. Demirchian stated that everything should be done to recognize the NKR as a side in the talks, and no contacts should be maintained with Azerbaijan until the Karabakh question was settled.
Questions Instead of a Summary
How will settlement of the Karabakh-Azerbaijan conflict progress after the elections in Azerbaijan? Will the world be able to see and appreciate the desire of the Karabakh people to build a law-based state regardless of the geopolitical interests of the superpowers in the region? How important is it for the world community that traces of the military junta have long been eradicated in the NKR, and that there are no threats to life in the name of freedom, or infantile moods giving rise to helplessness? Will the politicians in favor of establishing democratic institutions be able to assist the development of a civil society in Karabakh, without distancing themselves from these processes or hindering them? Do Armenia and the multi-million Armenian diaspora recognize that helping Karabakh to form public institutions is just as important as economic aid and investment projects?