Despite presidential elections in all three South Caucasian nations this year, including Monday’s election in Armenia, campaign season is not likely to bring any change to the ongoing tension between Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan, nor bring a permanent solution to the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Monday’s election is expected to result in reelection for Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan (Սերժ Սարգսյան) and, likewise, the upcoming Azerbaijani election is expected to result in reelection for its own president Ilham Aliyev, in each case without much in the way of robust opposition.
That means that not only are Azeri-Armenian relations unlikely to change anytime soon, it also means that the soured relationship between the two former Soviet republics is unlikely to feature prominently as a campaign issue, even though Karabakh Armenians gathered last week in the Karabakh capital of Stepanakert to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its independence movement.
As the region pushes for closer ties to Europe — Georgia is ardently pursuing not only European Union membership, but membership to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, even under newly elected prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili (ბიძინა ივანიშვილი), and Baku hosted one of the more exotic Eurovision contests in 2012 after the Azerbaijani Ell and Nikki won the previous year’s contest — the tensions threaten to bring a long-simmering conflict to Europe’s backdoor.
Although the two countries, together with Georgia, once formed the Transcaucasian Republic for three short-lived months in 1918, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at odds for the past 25 years following the emergence of the independence movement of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, located, since a 1936 demarcation of the three Soviet republics, in the South Caucasus in the western part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. The initial Soviet decision to merge Karabakh into the Azerbaijan SSR goes back to the earliest days of Josef Stalin’s Soviet regime and resulted from Stalin’s strategic considerations designed to bring Bolshevism to Turkey.
In 1988, the predominantly ethnic Armenian residents of Karabakh voted to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia. The move, which came as the Soviet Union itself was moving even closer to disintegration, was fully supported by military forces in Armenia Soviet Socialist Republic, and the resulting six-year war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over control of Karabakh escalated after the two SSRs gained their own sovereignty as independent nations.
Ethnic Azeris had fled Armenia throughout the Soviet era in the wake of anti-Azeri protests and to the extent that any ethnic Armenians remained in the non-Karabakh portion of Azerbaijan, a 1990 pogrom of Armenians resulted in the mass repatriation of around 200,000 Armenians from Baku.
Despite a ceasefire in 1994, Karabakh today remains a de facto independent country of around 140,000 residents under the leadership of the ‘Nagorno-Karabakh Republic,’ which claims independence from both Armenia and Azerbaijan, though forces from both countries have continued to routinely clash in and around the region for the past two decades, despite peace talks brokered by Russia in 2008. The self-proclaimed republic is led by an elected president, Bako Sahakyan since 2007, reelected in 2012 — ironically, Freedom House has rated Karabakh’s political system more open and free than either Armenia or Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is basking in an oil-fueled boom, with its presence on the Caspian Sea making it somewhat of an East-West energy crossroads, and giving it a GDP per capita of $10,200 and some of the world’s highest GDP growth over the past decade. That stands in contrast with a much poorer Armenian economy that features a lower GDP per capita of just $5,800 and an economy that’s struggled since suffering a 14.5% contraction in 2009, with around one-fifth to one-quarter of its national income coming from remittances from the Armenian diaspora. The closure of landlocked Armenia’s borders with booming Turkey and Azerbaijan as a result of the political tension in the region has not helped its economy, either.
Azerbaijan, a Turkic country with historically close relations with Turkey, Iran, and the ‘Silk Road’ countries of Central Asia, is 95% Muslim, the vast majority of which are Shia Muslim. In contrast, Armenia is predominantly Christian, and particularly, many of the country’s residents belong to the Orthodox Armenian Apostolic Church.
Both countries, however, share in common leaders who seem unlikely to depart radically from their longstanding positions — Azerbaijan has consistently maintained that it will never allow an independent Karabakh and routinely threatens to invade and retake the region, giving any provocation in the region the potential to escalate into a new war.
Sargsyan’s government has glided relatively smoothly from the previous government of president Robert Kocharyan (Ռոբերտ Քոչարյան), who served from 1998 to 2008. Since 1998, the dominant party in Armenian government has been the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK, Հայաստանի Հանրապետական Կուսակցություն). Despite the creation of an alternative party (with Kocharyan’s tacit support) in 2003 by one of Armenia’s wealthiest oligarchs, Gagik Tsarukian, that party, Prosperous Armenia (BHK, Բարգավաճ Հայաստան Կուսակցություն), did not significantly threaten the HHK in the 2012 parliamentary elections and Tsarukian himself refused to mount a competing presidential bid against Sargsyan.
Far from the election becoming a starting point for discussion for future peace talks, Azerbaijan’s foreign affairs department has accused Sargsyan of using the campaign to make anti-Azerbaijani statements.
Although Armenian democracy is deeply flawed, its relative openness makes it look like a model democratic state in contrast to Azerbaijan, where elections are all but rigged in favor of Aliyev and his governing party, which seems certain to rig Aliyev’s reelection later in October.
Aliyev (pictured below) is the son of Heydar Aliyev, who was Azerbaijan’s president from 1993 until 2003, when Ilham Aliyev took control after winning 76.8% of the vote in the October 2003 election widely seen both at home and abroad as unfree and unfair, and which led to protests against the rigged nature of the election, not unlike many of the so-called ‘color’ revolutions throughout the former Soviet Union in the early and mid-2000s.
Nonetheless, Aliyev held on and won 87% of the vote in the 2008 election and further won amendments in 2009 to Azerbaijan’s constitution abolishing term limits and restricting freedoms. In the 2010 parliamentary elections, Aliyev’s Yeni Azərbaycan Partiyası (New Azerbaijan Party), the dominant party since the fall of the Soviet Union, won 72 out of 125 seats.
Aliyev’s dictatorial regime, in spite of the country’s economic growth, has received intense criticism for its human rights violations, widespread corruption, its refusal to allow a flourishing opposition.