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13 Dec 2006

Nagorno-Karabakh gains constitution

The disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a remote, predominantly ethnic Armenian region formerly held by Azerbaijan, gained a constitution on 10 December, but the impact of the vote remains contentious. The international community, if it followed the referendum at all, criticized it as a potential threat to ongoing, delicate talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory. But for the separatist leadership itself, the vote was no more than a natural step in its 15-year journey toward full-fledged independence.

By Zoe Powell

"The constitution is not the answer to all our problems. The constitution is a chance," declared de facto President Arkady Ghoukassian at a 11 December press conference following the territory’s adoption of the constitution. "Now that we’ve adopted a constitution, we have a much better chance to become a democratic country according to European standards […]. A country striving for European standards has a better chance for recognition than a totalitarian regime."

Preliminary results show the referendum passed with the support of almost 99 percent of the 78,389 Karabakhi voters taking part - a staggeringly positive result that did not come as a surprise for most residents in this isolated mountain region, a six to eight-hour drive from the Armenian capital, Yerevan.

The vote was not without controversy, however. Some observers initially questioned the referendum’s timing - presidential elections are scheduled in the self-declared state for the summer of 2007 - and the relatively abbreviated time for public discussion.

For now, though, the international community has given little sign of giving the government - or the many voters surveyed by EurasiaNet - their desired response. Azerbaijan, the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and GUAM (a regional association including Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova) have all refused to recognize the referendum as valid. In a recent statement, OSCE Chairman-in-Office and Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht commented that the vote could undermine progress made in talks mediated by the OSCE between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory.

Meanwhile, Nagorno-Karabakh government officials maintain that they’re moving on. "We, in any case, need to organize ourselves to be independent," commented de facto Deputy Foreign Minister Masis Mayilian. "What, should we wait 14 years until the Azerbaijanis agree to build our state?"

Some 54 observers, primarily from Armenia, Russia and France, monitored the voting process. The day of the vote, the 15th anniversary of the territory’s original independence referendum, has been declared "Constitution Day."

Rather than cause for conflict, territorial leaders assert, the constitution should be cause for comparison - with Azerbaijan, which battled Armenia and Karabakh separatists for control of the territory from 1988-1994.

The 142-article document describes the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic as "a sovereign, democratic legal and social state" with powers in territory currently controlled by the separatist government. It establishes a broad range of generally defined rights, from the direct election of the territory’s president, parliament and local governments, to the presumption of innocence and freedom of assembly, speech, and religion. "If Azerbaijan had such a constitution, if it was the same democratic state, it’d be easier to talk with them," Ghoukassian said. "I hope that this will be considered by the international community."

The sensitive issue of the return of ethnic Azerbaijani refugees is not specifically addressed in the document, although the constitution provides for a right of return for "every citizen and foreign citizen having the right to live in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic." The issue of citizenship has been left undefined, pending a later law. Karabakhis currently carry Armenian passports, but cannot vote in Armenia’s elections. Armenian is defined as the state language, but the constitution guarantees "the free use of other languages spread among the population."

"Whether recognized or not, we have rights," commented Gegam Bagdasarian, editor of the independent weekly Demo and a member of the Nagorno-Karabakh parliament who abstained from voting on the draft constitution, approved on 1 November. "The international community should be interested in democracy. The more democracy we have, the easier it will be to find a common language to resolve our problems."

The military initially had a strong say in separatist Nagorno-Karabakh’s affairs, but in the years since a 2000 assassination attempt against Ghoukassian, and the subsequent imprisonment of de facto Defense Minister Samvel Babaian, civilian government has asserted itself. Representatives of the territorial leadership claim that Nagorno-Karabakh now compares favorably with both Azerbaijan and Armenia in terms of freedom of expression.

Newspaper editor Bagdasarian agrees. A critical article in his paper, Demo, questioned whether the constitutional referendum was linked to a desire by Ghoukassian for a third presidential term. The fact that the newspaper has not faced repercussions for questioning Ghoukassian’s motives is a sign that greater openness has indeed taken root, the editor maintained. The Nagorno-Karabakh leader, in office since 1997, later held a press conference in which he stated that he would not seek a third term.

"Five to six years ago, the government reacted very negatively to critical stories. But now, not at all," Bagdasarian said. Nonetheless, pragmatism dictates the response, he added. "It’s not that they don’t react because they’re so civilized, but because they don’t see a real threat [from print media] to themselves."

Nor did hopes among many ordinary Karabakhis voting in the referendum - routinely described as "a duty" - focus on democracy alone. Status as a legitimate, recognized state was one goal; the economic stability that is seen to come with the trappings of a recognized state was another.

"We’re a hard-working people. We want factories. We want work. We want for everyone to have a normal life," said Artur, a 45-year-old war veteran standing outside a grocery store not far from the polling station where de facto President Ghoukassian cast his ballot. "We have to vote so that people know our position."

Some voters queried on their way to the polls asserted that they had studied the constitution carefully, but others shrugged off the question. "Why read it?" commented one elderly man en route to cast his ballot in Stepanakert’s theater. "I’m going to vote for it and that’s all that’s needed."

Souten Tantazian, the chairman of polling station #30 in Stepanakert, was succinct: "This is for our future."