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Nagorno-Karabakh held a presidential election in July 2007, replacing 10-year incumbent Arkady Ghukassian with former security chief Bako Saakian. The election, which was not recognized internationally, was criticized internally as not entirely free and fair, and local nongovernmental organizations voiced concerns about pressure from authorities and a clampdown on media after the vote. Meanwhile, despite renewed efforts by international mediators to resolve the long-standing dispute over the territory and reports of a possible breakthrough in May 2007, no meaningful progress was made by year’s end. With Azerbaijan’s upcoming presidential election—and annual military spending reaching the $1 billion mark—as well as calls from recently elected President Serzh Sarkisian for a more hard-line Karabakh policy, progress in the talks appeared extremely unlikely in the near future.
Nagorno-Karabakh, populated largely by ethnic Armenians, was established as an autonomous region inside Soviet Azerbaijan in 1923. In February 1988, the regional legislature adopted a resolution calling for union with Armenia. The announcement led to warfare over the next several years between Armenian, Azerbaijani, and local Nagorno-Karabakh forces.
At its inaugural session in January 1992, Nagorno-Karabakh’s new legislature adopted a declaration of independence, which was not recognized by the international community. By the time a Russian-brokered ceasefire was signed in May 1994, Karabakh Armenians, assisted by Armenia, had captured essentially the entire territory, as well as seven adjacent Azerbaijani districts. Virtually all ethnic Azeris had fled or been forced out of the enclave and its surrounding areas, and the fighting had resulted in thousands of deaths and an estimated one million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
In December 1994, the head of Nagorno-Karabakh’s state defense committee, Robert Kocharian, was selected by the territory’s National Assembly for the newly established post of president. Parliamentary elections were held in 1995, and Kocharian defeated two other candidates in a popular vote for president the following year.
In September 1997, Foreign Minister Arkady Ghukassian was elected to replace Kocharian, who had been named prime minister of Armenia in March of that year. Kocharian was elected Armenia’s president in 1998. In the territory’s June 2000 parliamentary vote, the ruling Democratic Artsakh Union (ZhAM), which supported Ghukassian, won a slim victory, taking 13 seats.
Ghukassian won a second term as president in August 2002 with 89 percent of the vote. Voter turnout was close to 75 percent. While a number of domestic and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) concluded that the elections marked a further step in Nagorno-Karabakh’s democratization, they did note some flaws, including limited access for the opposition to state-controlled media. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry described the election as a violation of international norms, insisting that a legitimate vote could be held only after a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
An upsurge in shooting incidents along the ceasefire line during the summer of 2003, which both Armenian and Azerbaijani officials accused the other side of instigating, fueled concerns of a more widespread escalation of violence.
Nagorno-Karabakh held parliamentary elections in June 2005, with the opposition accusing the authorities of misusing state resources to influence the outcome, and Azerbaijani officials again insisting that such votes would be illegal until Azerbaijanis who had fled Nagorno-Karabakh were allowed to return. According to official results, Ghukassian’s renamed Democratic Party of Artsakh (AZhK) received 12 of the 33 seats. The Free Fatherland party, allied with AZhK, received 10 seats. Another eight seats went to unaffiliated candidates who were believed to be loyal to Ghukassian. Only three seats were won by parties opposed to the president.
In December 2006, a referendum on a draft constitution in Nagorno-Karabakh elicited criticism from the international community, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which said it would not recognize the vote and called it “counterproductive to the ongoing conflict settlement process.” Official reports indicated that 98 percent of those voting supported the referendum, which sought to declare the disputed territory an independent and sovereign state.
Presidential elections held in July 2007 also went unrecognized by the OSCE and other international bodies. Karabakh security chief Bako Saakian reportedly took more than 85 percent of the vote. His main opponent, Deputy Foreign Minister Masis Mailian, received 12 percent. All four political parties represented in the National Assembly, as well as outgoing president Ghukassian, supported Saakian’s candidacy, while the territory’s small NGO sector supported Mailian’s bid. Mailian argued that Saakian’s landslide win was due in part to his use of state resources during the election.
The OSCE’s Minsk Group—which had been established a decade earlier to facilitate negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh’s status—hosted a number of confidence-building meetings in 2005 in order to continue a dialogue between the principal parties. Kocharian and Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev met on two separate occasions in 2005, and a number of meetings took place over the course of 2006 at both the ministerial and presidential levels. In May 2007, the two presidents met at the sidelines of a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) meeting, with reports that the countries were the closest they had ever been to a resolution. However, considerable distance remained between the two parties’ positions, and at year’s end a compromise on the dispute was nowhere within view. Presidential elections scheduled for 2008 in both countries made major concessions unlikely in the near future, as did oil-rich Azerbaijan’s growing military spending, which reached $1 billion in 2007.
Nagorno-Karabakh has enjoyed de facto independence from Azerbaijan since 1994 and retains close political, economic, and military ties with Armenia. Parliamentary elections in 1995 and 2000 were regarded as generally free and fair, as were the 1996 and 1997 presidential votes. Parliamentary elections, which the opposition claimed were marred by fraud and other irregularities, were held in June 2005, while presidential elections held in 2007 were criticized for the use of state resources to influence the outcome. All of the elections, however, were considered invalid by the international community, which does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence.
The president, who is directly elected for up to two five-year terms, appoints the prime minister. Of the unicameral National Assembly’s 33 members, 22 are elected from single-mandate districts and 11 by party list, all for five-year terms. The main political parties in Nagorno-Karabakh are the AZhK, Free Fatherland, Movement 88, and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation–Dashnaktsutiun. The latter two ran as an opposition alliance in the 2005 elections.
Nagorno-Karabakh is believed to suffer from extensive corruption, and its interior minister and general prosecutor have come under scrutiny in the past. The territory was not listed separately in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The region officially remains under martial law, which imposes restrictions on civil liberties, including media censorship and the banning of public demonstrations. However, the authorities maintain that these provisions have not been enforced since 1995, a year after the ceasefire was signed.
The government controls many of the territory’s broadcast media outlets, and most journalists practice self-censorship, particularly on subjects related to Azerbaijan and the peace process. Underfunded public television broadcasts only several hours a day, and internet access is limited. Print media are more vibrant, with publications such as the biweekly Demo openly criticizing the government. Since Bako Saakian’s election as president in July 2007, journalists have reported increasing pressure from the authorities.
The registration of religious groups is required under Nagorno-Karabakh’s 1997 law on religion. The Armenian Apostolic Church, to which most residents belong, is the only religious organization registered with the territory. A number of minority groups, including Pentecostals, Adventists, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, have allegedly faced restrictions on their activities.
Freedom of assembly and association are limited, although trade unions are allowed to organize. The handful of NGOs that are active in the territory suffer from lack of funding and competition from government-organized NGOs, or GONGOs. Since Saakian’s election, NGO workers have reported increasing pressure from the authorities.
The judiciary, which is not independent in practice, is influenced by the executive branch and powerful political and clan forces. A poll conducted in 2003 found that 48 percent of Nagorno-Karabakh residents believed court sentences were unjust, and 47 percent did not trust the police.
The majority of Azeris who fled the territory during the separatist conflict continue to live in poor conditions in IDP camps in Azerbaijan. International aid organizations, meanwhile, are reducing direct assistance to the IDPs. Land-mine explosions continue to cause deaths and injuries each year, with children and teenagers among the most vulnerable groups. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, at least 50,000 antipersonnel mines were laid during the war, but in many cases, records of minefield locations were never created or were lost.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s fragile peace has failed to bring significant improvement to the economy, particularly in the countryside, and pensioners in particular are severely affected. Widespread corruption, a lack of substantive economic reforms, and the control of major economic activity by powerful elites limit equality of opportunity for most residents.
The designation of two countries is intended to reflect the international consensus on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the de facto authority over the territory.