A Controversial Vote for the Disputed Territory of Nagorno Karabakh

By Rovshan Ismayilov: 11/05/05

One of the least reported election races for the Azerbaijani parliament – but one of the most controversial – is occurring in #122 Khankendi constituency. To much of the outside world, the name may mean nothing. But to Azerbaijanis, the name “Khankendi” says one thing: Nagorno Karabakh. Khandkendi is the Azeri name for Stepanakert, the capital of the self-declared, ethnic Armenian Nagorno Karabakh Republic, territory that Azerbaijan claims as its own.

Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission created the 122nd Khankendi Constituency on August 12 following a presidential decree announcing that parliamentary elections would be held nationwide; on August 16 members of the election commission were elected, thereby paving the way to the first elections in this territory.

“The issue of the Khankendi constituency remained open for a long time because we were waiting for the settlement of the conflict in the near future. But we cannot violate the right of Azerbaijan citizens anymore and decided to announce [that the] election [would be held] in this part of the country,” CEC Chairman Mazahir Panahov said at an August 16 sitting of the commission. The Commission urged the city’s Armenian population, now living under a separatist government, to participate in the elections, but failed to arrange opportunities for online voting that would have permitted this process.

All of the 3,284 voters recorded in the constituency’s voter lists are IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) who mostly live in camps located in Baku, and the regional cities of Ganja, Naftalan and Sumgayit.

On November 6, Azerbaijani voters from the capital of the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh voted for a representative to Azerbaijan’s parliament. The CEC had originally come up with a total of 7,000 voters in for the constituency, based upon data from the State Committee for Refugees. However, after checking the number of voters still resident in Azerbaijan and eligible for voting, the number was revised.

The decision to hold elections in this constituency was widely supported across Azerbaijan’s political spectrum. Candidates and political experts, however, concede that the challenges involved in holding the vote – and monitoring it – are immense.

Arkadiy Gukasyan, leader of the self-declared Nagorno Karabakh Republic, has rejected all possiblity of Armenian-origin voters in the Karabakh capital taking part in elections for the Azerbaijani parliament. “I am glad that the Azerbaijan government has not lost its sense of humor,” Gukasyan told the Russian Regnum News in August.

Armen Melikyan, the separatist government’s foreign minister, sees only one possible way for Nagorno Karabakh’s Armenian population to take part in Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections. “It is possible if the Azerbaijan Republic and Nagorno Karabakh will sign a bilateral agreement on dual citizenship,” Melikyan told GazetaSNG.ru that same month.

Despite the fact that Armenian-origin constituency voters will not have a chance to vote, the Khankendi Election Commission contains one ethnic Armenian, Svetlana Gorchiyeva.

Gorchiyeva, who lived in the city, then also known as Stepanakert, during Soviet times, now resides in Baku with her Azeri husband and children. “I expect the results will be free and fair,” Gorchiyeva said, adding that she wants the elections to help achive peace in region.

Gorchiyeva said that she is sorry that there was no chance for the Karabakh capital’s Armenian population to take part in the process. “I hope that in the next elections, international organizations will help the Armenian population to vote,” Gorchiyeva said.

For assistance in holding the election, CEC Chairman Mazahir Panahov applied to the Baku office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and to the office of Ambassador Andjey Kasprshik, head of the OSCE monitoring mission for the Armenian-Azerbaijani confict and to the OSCE Minsk Group, the body charged with monitoring peace talks on Nagorno Karabakh. Citing the lack of time necessary to prepare for the vote, however, the OSCE did not assist the CEC with its plans.

The CEC decided to proceed, albeit without any voters currently living within the Karabakh capital able to take part. Vidadi Mahmudlu, a CEC representative nominated by the opposition Musavat Party, said that the lack of Armenian-origin-voters for the vote is not a reason for postponing or canceling the election in the 122nd constituency. “According to the election legislation, the number of voters taking part in an election does not affect their result. If even 10 voters will take part in the elections, the results will be valid,” Mahmudlu told EurasiaNet.

One hour before the close of voting, 42.05 percent of the constituency’s voters had cast their ballots, the CEC announced.

For now, international organizations are keeping mum about how the creation of the Karabakh constituency will affect peace talks over the disputed territory, if at all. Yuri Merzlyakov, the Russian co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group does not believe that the Azerbaijani government’s decision to hold elections in Karabakh – albeit remotely -- would prove popular among Karabakh Armenians. “I hardly can forecast how this decision will affect the negotiation process. Let us see…” Merzlyakov told the Regnum news agency in August.

Six candidates competed in the constituency’s race; there were two withdrawals. The opposition Birlik (Unity), Islahat (Reforms) and Azadlig (Freedom) election alliances nominated candidates for the constituency, although the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP – New Azerbaijan Party) did not. Aydin Mirzazade, a member of parliament and a member of the YAP Political Council, said that the party’s list had been published before the CEC came up with the decision to try to hold elections in the #122 Khankendi constituency.

Isi Bagirov, 45, the opposition Azadlig bloc’s candidate in the constituency, said that is eager to represent both Azeri and Armenian communities from the town in the Azerbaijani parliament. “I was born and grew up in Khankendi. I lived there and worked as a deputy director of the condenser factory until 1989 when I became an IDP. I know the city and the people of Khankendi better than anyone else and they know me. I know the problems of IDPs from Khankkendi and understand their needs. That is why I decided to run from this constituency,” he said. The campaign’s chief difficulty was traveling between various IDP camps to meet with voters, Bagirov added.

Bagirov contributed to the opposition Musavat Party’s Ugur (Success) peace plan for settlement of the 17-year-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and says that he looks forward to a time when both communities will co-exist in the Karabakh town as part of Azerbaijan. “It will happen sooner or later because the 21st century is not the time for long-term enmity,” Bagirov said.

Candidates in the 122nd Khankendi constituency are not the only ones who experienced difficulties running a campaign to target voters in disparate locations. There are ten constituencies besides the #122nd which represent other Nagorno Karabakh regions and other occupied territories.

Lack of sufficient funds to bring their message to voters is another problem cited by candidates in these constituencies. The financial support payments made to IDP voters by the government are another concern. “[IDP voters] are more dependent on government administrations than the non-IDP voters,” said Dadash Alishev, an independent candidate from the 125th Zangilan-Gubadli constituency, an Armenian-occupied territory.

According to Azer Sariyev, the spokesman of CEC, candidates from occupied territories did not have extra financing from state budget. “All candidates were able to use 1 million manats (about $217) for their campaign. All the rest [of their campaign money] should be invested by themselves,” Sariyev said.

Editor’s Note: Rovshan Ismayilov is a freelance journalist based in Baku.

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Two boys enjoy the afternoon on donkey-back in Vankli, Karabakh. (Daniel Gerstle for EurasiaNet)