Central and Eastern Europe, International Journalism and PR

Democratic elections under triple restrictions: Covid-19 threat, unresolved conflict and international isolation

Opinion article sent in by Mr. Artak Beglaryan- Ombudsman of Nagorno-Karabakh, member of European Ombudsman Institute.

On March 31, 2020, presidential and parliamentary general elections were held in the Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh Republic). It was the first time in the country’s history that the people of Artsakh elected the President and the National Assembly on the same day, and for that reason too, the voters’ turnout was quite high – 72.7%.

Life under unusual restrictions

Though these elections took place in a small country, they should interest the international community for several reasons. 

First, regardless of the Covid-19 pandemic worldwide and in the region, the elections were held without an outbreak of Covid-19. The first coronavirus case in Artsakh was recorded on April 7, followed by declaring emergency situation on April 12. The elections on March 31 and April 14 were organized with some preventive measures – each voter was provided with a protective mask, gloves and individual pen and kept social distancing at polling stations.

Second, Artsakh has an unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan with a relative ceasefire regime accompanied by regular violations, casualties and threats of using force by Azerbaijan. Since the first day of annexation by Soviet Azerbaijan in 1921 and movement in 1988, the indigenous Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh claimed to exercise their right to self-determination; they were subjected to genocidal acts and a large-scale war by Azerbaijan. 1991-1994 war took tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of thousands of refugees from both sides. Despite the ceasefire agreement signed in 1994 among Artsakh, Azerbaijan and Armenia, Azerbaijan has continued its periodic violations. The most extensive breach occurred in April of 2016 when Azerbaijan massively attacked the Artsakh defensive positions and settlements with tanks, military helicopters, heavy artillery, rocket launchers, unmanned combat aerial vehicles and other deadly weapons. The Azerbaijani military forces targeted the peaceful population and civilian objects, including schools and kindergartens. Almost all Artsakh civilians and combatants, who ended in the hands of the Azerbaijani armed forces, were tortured, executed or mutilated with ISIS style. 

Those and other violations are derived mostly from the anti-Armenian hatred and the Armenophobic state policy in Azerbaijan, which includes dehumanization of Armenians, encouragement and glorification of killing of Armenians, denying any foreign citizen with Armenian surname the entry to Azerbaijan, even persecuting football fans for wearing T-shirts with the name of Arsenal football player of Armenian origin Henrikh Mkhitaryan. For all its domestic and international failures the Azerbaijani leadership blames the Armenian nation worldwide – “number 1 enemy” of Azerbaijan as declared by President Ilham Aliyev. This decades-long policy of Armenophobia is enriched with a huge number of notorious examples, like the Safarov’s case. In brief, in 2004, during the NATO-sponsored English-language training programme in Budapest, the Azerbaijani officer Ramil Safarov axed the Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan in his sleep. The murderer was sentenced to life imprisonment in Hungary, but in 2012 was extradited to Azerbaijan and immediately pardoned by President Aliyev and extensively greeted as a hero by various officials and public figures. Just recently, on May 26, the European Court of Human Rights made a ruling recognizing Safarov’s pardon and glorification by Azerbaijan as violation of the fundamental rights enshrined in Article 2 (the Right to Life) and Article 14 (Prohibition of Discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In such terms, the Artsakh people live under constant threats to their life and security, while they continue efforts for state building and economic development.

Third, despite the universality of human rights, the Republic of Artsakh is isolated from the international community and resources. Thus, the people of Artsakh cannot take part in international and foreign programs in different spheres, the Government and civil society don’t get any international assistance for human rights protection, good governance, capacity building and other reforms. 

The international isolation works not only zero official communication and assistance, but also often is compounded with blocking of efforts and creation of obstacles. For example, the recent elections were not only condemned by authoritarian Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey, but also received negative reactions from some democratic states and the European Union solely because of Artsakh’s unrecognized status, all of which are contrary to European values and principles. 

Self-commitment and efforts to democratic development

In these terms, the Republic of Artsakh has built state institutions and has achieved tangible results in ensuring democracy on its own. Since 1991, Artsakh held 7 Parliamentary, 6 presidential and municipal general elections. It has adhered to a separation and balance of powers among legislative, executive and judicial branches. The Constitution guarantees comprehensive human rights and freedoms based on approaches of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Despite the abovementioned restrictions and challenges, the elections were an apparent manifestation of democratic development of the country, recording serious progress compared with the previous elections. Five out of twelve running political forces entered the parliament, two of which (2nd and 3rd most vote recipients) were opposition parties throughout the electoral campaign. Fourteen candidates were running at the presidential election, and since nobody exceeded the 50% threshold, the second round of the election was held on April 14. As a result, former Prime Minister Arayik Harutyunyan (49.24%) and acting Foreign Minister Masis Mayilyan (26.42%) went on to the second round. Arayik Harutyunyan, the leader of the top-voted “Free Homeland” Party, won the second round receiving 88% of the valid votes with 44.9% voters’ turnout. 

The Staff of the Human Rights Ombudsman of Artsakh closely monitored the entire electoral processes, noting that the elections were held in general accordance with the international standards of democracy in terms of high competitiveness, participation and public control. However, some practical and legal issues have been detected, the regulation of which will further increase the efficiency of the electoral system.

The Ombudsman received a number of complaints regarding mainly damage and placement of posters, and bias by some heads of municipalities. There were also some unsubstantiated alerts of illegal influence on voters’ will and some cases of intolerance and hate speech. The Ombudsman took concrete steps to identify the details of the complaints and prevent possible violations by forwarding some of them to the General prosecutor to be measured with criminal procedures. In sum, the majority of the electoral violations were episodic and unintentional due to organizational problems and improper capacities, and they didn’t have a significant impact on the voting results. In the sense of transparency and public control, it was quite a positive decision by the Artsakh Government to support the media initiative to publicly and simultaneously broadcast live on Youtube the entire work of the largest 48 polling stations covering 53% of all voters.

These elections once again demonstrated that human rights, particularly the right to vote and to take part in public affairs, are inalienable and universal. The fundamental human rights instruments, in particular the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenants on Human Rights, which have been unilaterally ratified by Artsakh, clearly establish that in exercising human rights no distinction shall be made on the basis of political, jurisdictional or international status of any territory. In such a way, the unrecognized status cannot serve as impediments to development. Instead, the international community has a responsibility to assist Artsakh to build a democratic and human rights friendly environment for its own people and, consequently, stability for the South Caucasus region.

Photo: Mr. Artak Beglaryan, permission for publication from Mr. Artak Beglaryan