Sam: And now for something completely different: elections in the Republic of Artsakh!
Anna: The what?
Sam: The Republic of Artsakh, formerly known as the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh! The Republic is holding an election on Tuesday, and it’s an exciting time because they’ve recently switched their system of government from a Parliamentary Republic (in which the President is a mostly symbolic figurehead) to a Presidential Republic like the US.
It’s also exciting because, depending on your politics, the Republic of Artsakh may not actually exist.
Anna: …to quote this most recent season of The Bachelor, ‘excuse you, what?’ Also, as a side note, there is a strange family in my basement that is not even social distancing; what the fuck?
Sam: Wait until you meet my roommate.
Anyway, let’s go back to the beginning. A century ago this very month, Armenia was looking to reclaim its maximum historic territorial extent from the Ottoman Empire, and they kinda succeeded, but only on paper, as seen in the header photo, which is also a staple of murals in Los Angeles.
Ultimately that didn’t work out because Atatürk happened and then what was left of Armenia was conquered by the ascendant Soviet Union, but suffice it to say that modern-day Armenia is not happy with its current borders. So in 1993, they invaded the neighboring state of Azerbaijan to take control of a majority-Armenian province called Nagorno-Karabakh. Ever since then, Armenia has occupied the territory and administered it as an unrecognized client state.
This is by all definitions illegal, and no country besides Armenia recognizes Artsakh. Furthermore, Armenia is a Russian ally while Azerbaijan is kinda sorta a US ally1. Nevertheless, Artsakh has become something of a niche progressive cause celebre, much in the same way that Israel was in the 1950s/60s. In part this is because there’s a huge Armenian community in the US, larger even than in Armenia itself; and partly this is for humanitarian reasons, as Armenia is a largely functional democracy while Azerbaijan is, to put it lightly, a more typical post-Soviet kleptocracy ruled by the same family since independence. A number of US states now recognize Artsakh2, and that brings us back to this election.
Even though Artsakh is for all intents and purposes ruled by Armenia, they’ve completely overhauled their system of government in what might be described as an attempt at visibility. The Artsakh conflict is extremely contentious to those who know about it, but virtually unknown to those not directly affected by it– such as my mother, who immediately upon hearing about it yesterday took the side of Armenia/Artsakh. In my opinion, they’ve actually changed their political system for the worse, but they also want to show the world that they’re serious about their democracy. For their part, US representatives Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey) and Jackie Speier (D-California) want to send advisors to observe and bring attention to the election. Or at least they did before the Coronavirus outbreak.
Anyway, the elections are for the presidency and the National Assembly, so we can talk about the candidates and parties in one go:
- Former Prime Minister Arik Harutyunyan of the centre-right Free Motherland Party
- Ashot Ghoulyan, leader of the right-wing Democratic Party
- Vitaly Balasanyan of the new-ish left-wing Movement 88, a close ally of the very influential leftist Armenian international ARF3
- Foreign Minister Masis Mayilyan, independent
Like I said, Artsakh is all but governed by Armenia, so the only important outcome of the election will be that it is free and fair. But that counts for a lot when the rest of the world either doesn’t expect it of you or doesn’t care, and especially when liberal democracy is under threat worldwide. If an unrecognized West Asian country can beat the West at its own game, it says as much about America as it does about Artsakh.
(This header is neither an endorsement nor a denial of Artsakh)