What you need to know about the latest protests in Karabakh
What is happening in Karabakh and why?
Protests broke out in Stepanakert on 1 June. Dozens of people (quite a few for a town of a 55000 residents) have blocked the central Azatamartikneri Avenue until the late hours of the night.
Protesters say that an earlier incident involving the special forces of the National Security Service of Karabakh was the cause of the unrest. A household fight involving a special forces officer resulted in 20 special forces officers arriving at the scene and brutally beating two civilians.
According to witnesses, the police did not intervene. They instead detained those who were beaten, although they were then forced to transfer them to hospital. It has been reported that their condition is no longer critical.
Following yesterday’s protests, however, criminal proceedings have already been launched. Fifteen people were taken into police custody, mainly the attackers.
Local political scientist Tigran Grigoryan says that people protested the arbitrariness of the security forces.
Experts note the long-entrenched power structure in Karabakh, built on two components:
- Support of Yerevan, where, since 1997 and until recently, Karabakh natives Robert Kocharian and Serzh Sargsyan held power;
- The punitive force of the ‘special forces’.
Leading up to now
Following the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Armenia in April and May 2018, new authorities are in charge. The newly elected Prime Minister of Armenia and revolutionary leader Nikol Pashinyan paid his first visit to Stepanakert on 9 May. There, he made it clear that the Armenian authorities will no longer ‘patronize’ the Karabakh authorities.
He made a statement on the Karabakh settlement process and said that: “From now on Artsakh [the local-name of Karabakh – JAMnews] should defend its interests at the negotiating table itself.”
However, this statement was also projected on the relations between Stepanakert and Yerevan. Many interpreted it as the refusal of Yerevan to appoint and sponsor the authorities in Stepanakert.
Experts are now of the opinion that Karabakh cannot stay away from the processes taking place in Armenia. A change of power in Stepanakert looks more and more inevitable, and now, apparently, the processes are paving their way for the resignation of the current President of Karabakh, Bako Sahakyan.
Protesters are still demanding the resignation of only the heads of law enforcement agencies – Prosecutor General Artur Mosiyan, the Head of the Police Kamo Aghajanyan and the Chief of the National Security Service Arshavir Garamyan.
Bako Sahakyan’s resignation is still out of the question, but the demand is out there.
The deputy of the Karabakh parliament Hayk Hanumyan (who, like Nikol Pashinyan, is a native of the Armenian town of Ijevan) met with Bako Sahakyan, but has not yet reported the results of their talks.
According to eyewitnesses, the authorities are panicking in plain sight – not only did the State Minister Araik Harutyunyan and Secretary of the Security Council Vitaly Balasanyan come out to meet the protesters, but the heads of the security agencies are also trying to calm the situation.
There is, however, the opinion that they themselves do not mind taking advantage of the situation of a power change.
Who can come to power
The reality of Karabakh is that no clear opposition leaders exist. Therefore, the question of who can replace Bako Sahakyan does not have an unambiguous answer.
Several options are being considered.
One is the former president of Karabakh Arkady Ghukasyan, who is considered a ‘compromise’ candidate by Serzh Sargsyan and Robert Kocharyan.
Another contender is the current Foreign Minister of Karabakh, Masis Mayilyan, who in 2007 was Bako Sahakyan’s rival in the presidential elections and spent ten years as strong opposition.
There is also MP Hayk Khanumyan, who is trying to mobilize protest moods in Karabakh. In 2016, he was beaten after his participation in a rally in support of former Defence Minister Samvel Babayan. Babayan was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in 2017 on charges of preparing violent actions against the authorities in Yerevan and is behind bars.
There is another potential candidate – the current Status Minister Araik Harutyunyan, who enjoys quite a lot of public support and heads the Free Homeland Party, which holds a majority in the parliament.
As Artsakh blogger Alexander Kananyan writes, the time of Bako Sahakyan’s rule is inexorably nearing its end.
Who is Bako Sahakyan?
Bako Sahakyan became the president of Karabakh in 2007 and was re-elected in 2012. Before becoming president, he headed the National Security Service of Karabakh. Before that, he spent four years as representative of the Armenian National Security Service at the FSB in Moscow, Russia.
In 2017, a constitutional reform was implemented in Karabakh, which provided the president with extra power. At the same time, the parliament elected Bako Sahakyan as a ‘transitional president’ until 2020, when the nationwide presidential elections are to be held.
This political stunt was seen as an attempt by Yerevan to keep a loyal in power in Stepanakert.
However, after the change of power in Armenia, Bako Sahakyan’s three-year ‘transitional’ term lost its significance, and a change of power in Stepanakert seems to be only a matter of time.