Nagorno-Karabakh to elect new president and parliament despite coronavirus
Nagorno-Karabakh is holding both presidential and parliamentary elections on March 31.
In 2017, the region adopted a new constitution which included the decision to transition from a semi-presidential to a presidential form of government. Constitutional amendments are already taking effect, and the new president will have more powers than his predecessors.
There are 14 presidential candidates in the running, which is an unprecedented number. At the same time, 361 candidates from 10 parties and 2 party blocs will compete for a total of 33 seats in parliament.
The campaign was held in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. However, the virus has yet to touch Nagorno-Karabakh, and officials decided not to postpone the elections. This, despite the fact that the area closed its borders with Armenia, where the number of infections has recently spiked.
Details on candidates, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the issue of electoral observers
Details on the election
Many political scientists say that the two main opponents for the presidency are the Minister of Foreign Affairs since 2017, Masis Mayilyan, and former Prime Minister Arayik Harutyunyan.
Other candidates include Speaker of the Karabakh parliament Ashot Ghulian, ex-Secretary of the Security Council Vitaly Balasanyan, and press secretary of the incumbent president, David Babayan.
Two of the presidential candidates are women.
For the first time in the history of Nagorno-Karabakh, the election campaign culminated in presidential debate broadcast on local public television.
12 of the 14 candidates participated.
One of the female candidates, Kristin Balayan, did not participate in the televised debates, since this format, in her opinion, “does not allow to convey her own opinion and position.”
One of the main contenders, Masis Mayilyan, also refused to participate. He explained his decision by saying that “he has no questions for other candidates.” This did not surprise the locals. Social networks write that “Mayilyan is not a fan of participating in such events.”
Pre-election coronavirus conversations
Following the announcement of the coronavirus pandemic, the Central Election Commission announced that the format of the election campaign should be reconsidered.
After some time, five of the presidential candidates spoke in favor of declaring a state of emergency and postponing the election date. However, the remaining candidates did not support this decision.
Official data states that there are no reported coronavirus cases in Nagorno-Karabakh. To prevent the spread of the virus, a temporary entry ban through the Armenian border was introduced on March 26.
An exception is made for registered Nagorno-Karabakh citizens, freight carriers, and journalists and observers who will monitor the elections.
Journalist and observer participation in the elections
The authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh announced that 140 observers and 40 media agencies from different countries intended to attend the elections.
As for the Armenian publications, some of them reported that they considered it the right decision to postpone the elections to a later date, and therefore refused to go to Karabakh to cover them.
But many Armenian journalists still decided to travel to Stepanakert and fulfill their professional duty. In particular, the journalist Hayk Khalatyan wrote on his Facеbook page:
“Ready for the elections in Nagorno-Karabakh! My coronavirus test came back negative. The rapid-result coronavirus test is so simple – it gives you the results in just ten minutes.”
Earlier, Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan said that everyone who intends to go to the elections in Nagorno-Karabakh will have to pass a rapid-result test:
“We will do everything to prevent the coronavirus from entering Nagorno-Karabakh with the group of observers.”
Daniel Ioannisyan, coordinator for the Association of Informed Citizens, reported that the NGO is sending 100 observers to Karabakh. There will be an equal number of observers from Transparency International, he says. More than 100 observers will participate from NGO Legal Education and Control, headed by the former vice speaker of the National Assembly of Armenia Arpine Hovhannisyan.
“We will take the temperature of observers in Yerevan, of course, and will also do this before sending them to polling stations. We are minimizing the contact of all observers in Karabakh, and we already have all the masks and disinfectant we need to do so,” said Daniel Ioannisyan.
Opinions of experts and journalists
Journalists and political scientists in Yerevan discussed whether the elections should be postponed the whole week leading up to March 31.
Political scientist Hrant Melik-Shahnazaryan wrote on his Facebook page:
“The coronavirus has already spread to the Armenian army. The country locked all of its citizens in their homes. The economy collapsed…After all this, does anyone still believe that the virus will not also spread to Nagorno-Karabakh? Really?”
Journalist Tatul Hakobyan also commented on this issue on social media:
“Today, while the rest of the planet is discussing a new world order, talking about uniting against this universal threat, we ignore this inevitable danger with criminal indifference, and if we continue to do so, it may come back on a large scale.”
Incidentally, Hakobyan wrote this status while he was waiting for the result of the rapid test before his trip.
Political observer from the Armenian online publication “Lragir” Naira Hayrumyan told JAMnews how these elections differ from the previous ones:
“These are very important elections, because they are taking place in the midst of a new geopolitical and regional situation.
The traditional vertical power structure from Stepanakert-Yerevan-Moscow, which has maintained the status quo in the region for many years, has been facing obstacles following the Velvet Revolution in Armenia in 2018. And this dividing line also runs between the main presidential candidates.
The main candidates are Minister of Foreign Affairs Masis Mayilyan and former Prime Minister Arayik Harutyunyan. Masis Mayilyan positions himself as a person who is not connected with the former oligarchic Stepanakert-Yerevan-Moscow hierarchy, unlike Harutyunyan, whom many perceive as the very embodiment of this power structure.
The election campaign in Karabakh clearly reflected this major difference: Masis Mayilyan was careful to avoiding promises while campaigning, while Arayik Harutyunyan, on the contrary, spoke about grandiose plans implemented with the help of “investors.” At the same time, the main argument against Mayilyan was that the Russian Federal Security Service supposedly forbade him from entering Russia for a period of five years.
It is difficult to say to who the residents of Karabakh will vote for, but many understand that they live in a country that may be involved in military operations at any time. Literally on the eve of the elections, there was enemy gunfire in villages in the Tavush region of Armenia. Three servicemen and a 14-year-old were injured. Azerbaijan cannot be an indifferent observer in the election of a legitimate, sovereign power in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry also urged on the international community not to recognize the elections in Nagorno-Karabakh. Apparently, Turkey understands that Nagorno-Karabakh has the potential be an important participant in negotiations on decisive issues in the region. Turkey and Azerbaijan, as well as Russia, are trying to prevent this. The Armenian side is doing everything it can to form a national political bond. And the elections in Nagorno-Karabakh will reflect the struggle between these players.”