IWPR- Institute for War & Peace Reporting
March 2 2005

KARABAKH: POLITICAL PARTY BOOM

Three serious political rivals have emerged to challenge the
government of Nagorny Karabakh in the upcoming parliamentary
elections.

By Ashot Beglarian in Stepanakert

Nagorny Karabakh voters are spoilt for choice in the upcoming
parliamentary elections as for the first time a plethora of new
parties has
emerged to challenge the government.

Many in the Armenian-majority territory are predicting a high turnout

in June following the appearance on the political scene of three
serious rivals to the pro-government bloc currently dominating
parliament, the Democratic Party of Artsakh.

It holds 20 seats, with the nationalist Dashnaktsutiun party
controlling eight and five being held by independents. The Dashnaks
became
the de facto opposition in parliament three months ago after the
dismissal of its party member, Education Minister Armen Sarkisian,
from the
government.

One reason for the opposition party boom are changes to Nagorny
Karabakh's electoral law which means that this time one-third of the
33-seat parliament will be selected by proportional representation.
Parties that gain 10 per cent of the vote will win seats in the
assembly,
and the multiplicity of parties means that few expect one group to
dominate the next parliament.

These will be the fourth set of legislative elections since 1991,
when, amidst an escalating war, Nagorny Karabakh declared
independence
from Azerbaijan. The territory has never been recognised by the
outside world, nor have any of the elections held there.

Alexander Sarkisian, a political analyst, said the "objectivity and
clear civic stand" of Karabakh's central electoral commission has
encouraged the parties to believe this is a contest worth fighting.
He
also speculated the lively interest in politics amongst Karabakh
Armenians at the moment may have started with the election of an
opposition
candidate as mayor of Stepanakert last summer.

"I don't think it's just corporate interests that are motivating
people, it's a desire to change the situation for the better," said
Sarkisian. "It's rare to hear these days the sceptical view that 'one
set
of masters leaves and another takes their place'."

Free Motherland, the first of the new parties to emerge, was founded
by Artur Tovmasian, a former speaker of parliament; Arpat Avanesian,
a former university rector; and two successful businessmen, Araik
Harutyunian and Rudik Usnunts.

At the party conference, Tovmasian criticised the government, saying
that Karabakh was suffering from a "post-war syndrome that has forced

many young people to leave their motherland, while those that have
come to power have been far from the best".

Free Motherland has support from within the current parliament and is

expected to win a number of seats based on a programme that "reflects

the fundamental interests of the Karabakh nation, guarantees its
freedom, security and right to self-determination".

Parliamentary deputy Ararat Petrosian heads another new party, Our
Home is Armenia, which was founded in January. As the name suggests,
its ultimate aim is union with Armenia. It also makes a strong appeal

to voters disaffected with life in contemporary Karabakh.

Party leaders say they want to raise the standard of living in
Karabakh, strengthen the rule of law, ensure a division between
different
branches of power and that veterans of the 1991-1994 conflict receive

enough attention from the state.

"Participation in the parliamentary elections this summer is not our
top priority, but the party will fight for seats in parliament so as
to be able to give voice to the most pressing problems in the highest

representative organ," Petrosian said.

A third group, Movement 88, held its inaugural conference January 22,

promising "to stay true to the basic mission of the socio-political
movement of 1988" when Karabakh's move for secession from Soviet
Azerbaijan began. Amongst its policy pledges are a strengthening of
ties
between Karabakh, Armenia and the diaspora, a strong emphasis on
defending human rights, freedom of speech and fighting corruption.

One of the founders and leaders of the party, Eduard Agabekian, the
current mayor of Stepanakert and a parliamentary deputy, last year
won
popularity when he confidently saw off the government candidate in
the second round of the mayoral elections. Since then, however, his
approval rating has fallen, and Movement 88 will struggle to win
seats
in parliament.

Two other parties, the centre-right Armenakan party and the Communist

Party, are also unlikely to win over enough voters to gain places.
The opposition Dashnaks are expected to do better but will not win
the
largest number of seats.

Ashot Beglarian is a freelance journalist in Stepanakert and IWPR
contributor.