Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Armeniaís Presidential Election: The View from Baku
Rovshan Ismayilov: 02/12/08

In Azerbaijan, official or public interest in Armenia’s upcoming presidential election is minimal. Few in Baku see the impending political transition in Yerevan as having much of an impact on efforts to break the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations stalemate.

Despite a recent push to revive peace talks, analysts contend that a lack of popular hope in Baku for the normalization of Azerbaijani-Armenian relations, or for the resolution of the Karabakh conflict, is behind the lack of interest in the Armenian election.

The Azerbaijani government’s indifferent stance reinforces this impression. The identity of Armenia’s new president, succinctly commented foreign ministry spokesperson Khazar Ibrahim, “will be the choice of the Armenian voters and society.”

The Armenian vote is generally viewed by Azerbaijani onlookers as a choice between just two candidates, even though nine are officially in the race. Most believe that the two candidates with any chance of winning are Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who is seen as the favorite, and former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, who was in office during Armenia’s 1988-1994 war with Azerbaijan over control of Karabakh.

From Baku’s perspective, the other seven candidates in Yerevan simply do not exist. There is virtually no mention of them in the Azerbaijani media, and their movements and statements are generally not followed by Baku political analysts or government officials. Between Sarkisian and Ter-Petrosian, the latter is seen more as a political leader open to compromise with Azerbaijan.

“Ter-Petrosian is an experienced politician who is ready for courageous solutions,” commented Rasim Musabekov, an opposition-friendly political analyst in Baku. “And his speeches show he is readier to stop the hostilities with Azerbaijan. But the issue is whether Ter-Petrosian will be able to control the hawks in the Armenian administration.”

“He said several times that it is necessary for Armenia to have better relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey,” agreed Rauf Mirkadirov, a political columnist for the Russian-language daily Zerkalo (Mirror) who recently returned from a trip to Armenia. “Of course, better relations are not possible without compromises on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.”

Former presidential foreign policy aide Vafa Guluzade, who took part in the Karabakh peace talks during the 1990s, also sees Ter-Petrosian as capable of “real” compromises – a pullout from the seven occupied Azerbaijani territories surrounding Karabakh, and the start of some form of cooperation with Azerbaijan. Guluzade blames Russia’s supposed dislike of such compromises for the former president’s resignation in 1998.

With the pro-Russian Sarkisian in power, Guluzade forecasts, “the [peace] process will remain stuck. “

The deputy chairman of the Azerbaijani parliament’s Security and Defense Committee disagrees. “I do not see a big difference between them [on the Karabakh issue],” Aydin Mirzazade said, referring to Sarkisian and Ter-Petrosian. “It was Ter-Petrosian who appointed Karabakh war hawks Serzh Sarkisian and Robert Kocharian [as] Armenian defense minister and prime minister, respectively.”

Speeches made by Ter-Petrosian, though, Mirzazade continued, indicate that he grasps “Azerbaijan’s growing strength” – a phrase commonly used to refer to the country’s energy-fueled economic boom and recent military buildup. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

“[R]egardless who wins the elections, the new president will have to consider the new realities of our region and Azerbaijan’s growing military and economic potential,” Mirzazade said.

Analyst Musabekov sees Sarkisian as out of sync with those “new realities.”

“This group does not really understand the situation in the region … and does not see the risks that Azerbaijan is getting stronger. Sarkisian is more confrontational,” he said.

The Foreign Ministry’s Ibrahim noted only that the government hopes Armenia’s next president will take a “more constructive position on the issue of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”

The expected victory by Sarkisian could bring some benefits for the Karabakh peace process, Musabekov suggested. “Sarkisian is from the incumbent administration that conducts talks with Azerbaijan. If he wins, there will not be need for delays in the negotiation process. He will not need time to get a grasp of the situation.”

The fact that Sarkisian is originally from Karabakh is another advantage, Musabekov continued. “Because once he decides to accept compromises, he will face fewer problems to persuade the elite of Nagorno-Karabakh to agree with that.”

Another independent political expert, Ilgar Mammadov, believes that the February 19 election means Yerevan is currently under greater outside pressure than Baku to compromise on Karabakh.

In early January, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, which is overseeing negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, traveled to Baku, Yerevan and Karabakh. “The reason for these renewed efforts [by both governments] lies in the understanding that there is a high correlation between election cycles and the negotiation process,” Mammadov noted. “Previously, the presidents of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, when up for election, have always promised a compromise in order to ensure the West’s support amidst election fraud, and failed to deliver such a compromise afterwards under various pretexts.”

Eventually, though, international pressure will focus on Azerbaijan, he said. “Apparently, Yerevan is pressed harder now, but the pressure will shift to Baku after April, heading towards the October 2008 presidential elections in Azerbaijan,” he noted.

If Ter-Petrosian somehow wins the vote, Mammadov believes, Western pressure on Azerbaijan will stay strong, even after its upcoming presidential poll. “He already says he is ready for compromises. Therefore, if he wins, the West will demand more compromises from Baku as well,” the expert said.

At a January press conference in Yerevan, the Minsk Group’s American co-chair, Assistant Deputy Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza, affirmed that both Baku and Yerevan had “a common vision” for a framework peace agreement, news agencies reported.

Editorís Note: Rovshan Ismayilov is freelance journalist based in Baku.