Renaissance in No-Man’s-Land? About the election campaigns

Wahlkampagne_8

Photo: ©Paul Toetzke

By Elena Ammel

On May 3, 2015, parliamentary elections were held in Nagorno-Karabakh. We wanted to know how one campaigns in a state that hasn’t been recognized internationally, and followed a candidate in Stepanakert.

Tigran Grigoryan looks around nervously. He had expected a larger turnout. In fact, they were going to start half an hour ago. It is the second of a total of four campaign events for the young politician. ”We should have events like this on every street in the country,” Tigran tells us, smiling like a professional, while the audience slowly gathers in the evening sun. The bad weather during the last couple of days has slightly upset his party’s plan for the election campaigns. There won’t be a lot of time left for campaigning now.

On May 3, 2015, parliamentary elections will be held in Nagorno-Karabakh. This will be the sixth election of this kind already in the short history of the de facto republic, which unilaterally declared its independence from Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We wanted to know how one campaigns in a state that hasn’t been recognized internationally, and followed Tigran Grigoryan, second on the list of ”National Renaissance’s” top candidates, and his campaign team of three to a local event in Stepanakert.

For the most part, the world knows nothing about life in the enclave in Azerbaijan with its mostly Armenian population, which has been at the center of a fierce battle between Armenians and Azerbaijanis since the early 1990s. Despite the official truce that was reached in 1994, until this day there are still casualties on both sides on a daily basis. Whereas the latent conflict in the South Caucasus takes center stage, the international media’s attention remains limited. Only when the situation escalates momentarily, there are news reports: most recently in August 2014 when an Armenian military helicopter was shot down by Azerbaijani soldiers.

At the same time, office bearers and candidates alike attach great importance to international attention, not only during elections. They want to gain international recognition for the de facto republic and aim to demonstrate that this status would be well-earned. However, how significant are the parliamentary elections for the 90,000 potential voters? Do they believe a regime change is possible, and what would they expect from it if it was?

In Stepanakert, the de facto republic’s capital, the upcoming elections are impossible to ignore, despite the omnipresent memory of the Armenian genocide 100 years ago. Election posters decorate countless window facades, large banners span the main streets and call voters to the ballots with the words “Ensure free and fair elections with your participation,” translated into three languages. All around the city one can find election offices by the different parties, newly set up in small housing containers. Right next to the Soviet-style statue of the city’s namesake Stepan Schahumjans television ads for the parties are shown nonstop on huge screens.

There are 32 mandates in the national assembly available for the five-year legislative term. Seven parties are running in this election; for Tigran Grigoryan’s party “National Renaissance” it is the first time. Founded in 2012, they conceive of themselves as an opposition party. They are determined to replace the old governing elite and establish new principles in the de facto republic’s domestic politics.

Tigran discusses last details with his colleagues. In the meantime, more than 20 local residents—women, men, and children—have gathered in Aram Khachatryan, a gravel road named after a famous Armenian composer. Most of them are here by chance. They have come out of their houses because they have heard something going on in the street. They have not visited any other campaign events so far, nor do they see any reason to do so in the future. At the event there is neither a microphone nor chairs. The only thing reminiscent of a campaign event as it would happen in Europe is a police car in the background, which accompanies the politicians to all events.

Tigran will be the center of attention this evening. He is dressed up; in his suit he immediately stands out from the group. This will not prevent him from emphasizing over and over again that his is the party of the people. Whereas the party’s top candidate Hayk Khanumyan campaigns the rural areas of Nagorno-Karabakh, Tigran leads the capital. Accompanied by two fellow party members, he begins with the presentation of the party program. He highlights his party’s solidarity with the people, their transparency and integrity. As he points out, if things are supposed to change, a new generation is needed. This statement is not to be taken only literally. For “National Renaissance” it also serves as a metaphor for radical change. For the people’s everyday problems finally have to be at the center of policy decisions; the reigning elites’ privileges have to be abolished. Tigran does not speak about foreign policy, such as his own position in the Nagorno–Karabakh conflict. As he explains to us later, there are no differences between the parties anyway when it comes to this issue. No one thinks territorial concessions to Azerbaijan are acceptable.

It is the difference in domestic policy, then, that distinguishes them from the political elites, a point Tigran tries to present in detail, when, after only a few sentences, he is interrupted by an elderly resident. She does not directly object, neither does she respond to the politician’s pleasant-sounding words. We rather witness an eruption of frustrations that cannot be held back any longer. The woman vehemently denounces the precarious situation that has not changed for years. According to her, the power is in the hands of a few rich businessmen, who not only monopolistically control politics and the economy, but also shamelessly show off their wealth made in unlawful ways. And then they are unbearably indifferent towards the existential needs of the little man. Later we learn that a member of parliament earns about $600 a month, whereas the average per capita income is about $200.

Tigran, a smart talker despite his young age and little experience in politics, tries to calm things down. He responds to the audience’s utterances and confirms that the situation is unbearable. However, no one seems receptive for his arguments; no one wants to believe that with “National Renaissance” everything will be different, that it will be better. The disappointments about promises by officials that were never kept were too big. “Tell me how,” asks a man with a weather-beaten face and holes in his shoes and only a few teeth left, “how am I supposed to pay for my son’s wedding in a couple of years if I can’t even rely on my meager pension being paid out?” It is more of a pleading than an accusation—it is April 14 and the has not yet received his pension for March. Tigran and his team promptly promise a reform of the pension system. Again, the crowd’s murmur expresses their suspicions: “Of course, in the campaigns everyone makes fine speeches, everyone is saying the same thing! But later on nothing changes—just look at these streets; nothing has been done since they were built decades ago! The streets in the places where the oligarchs live, they are properly paved, wonderful! Just so the fat cats in their state coaches can safely reach their palaces,” a woman in the audience rants. Applause ensues, and then the next sad and angry anecdote: How are the people supposed to rely on politicians’ promises, when they sit in cold, dilapidated houses, in which the power has been turned off, because the bills could not be paid due to late pensions?

Tigran tries again with a comeback. In a surprisingly calm tone he explains that this was exactly his point: the government has the budget to make true improvements in the people’s standard of living possible. The established parties, however, are too corrupt, their ties to big business too strong, and thus an efficient use of the state’s budget, to which all of them contribute, is impossible. This is exactly the reason why there is a need of an honest opposition party which keeps the government’s business in check. In general, there is a need for a new culture of monitoring and transparency. His party is going to set an example and allow citizens to keep a close eye on their work. Later Tigran will tell us, “the problem is that the people cannot distinguish between old and new politicians. They accuse us of the mistakes that the governing parties have made.” He sounds neither smug nor demoralized.

It is striking that it is the generation of pensioners in particular who complain about the unbearable situation. On the one hand, they are so disillusioned that they hold Tigran and his team responsible for the machinations of the world of politics. On the other hand, the older members of the audience show an unexpected enthusiasm in disagreeing with the young politicians. This is not what indifference or resignation look like. We are asked to take pictures of the street’s desolate state; Tigran is called on to look at the inside of a local resident’s dilapidated house. He complies with the request as soon as the event is over—without the presence of a single camera. When leaflets are handed out, an elderly man asks for a Russian translation—because who is supposed to be able to read the Armenian version? Many Armenians who went to school in the Soviet Union cannot read or write in their native language. Russian was the lingua franca, the language of the Soviet education system in the formerly multiethnic region. There is no Russian version, and the oral presentation of the party program does not impress the audience either. The world the politicians live in seems to far removed from that of the people. Still, all of them plan on going to vote on May 3.

Observing this from the outside, we ask ourselves if young politicians and elderly citizens aren’t telling the the same story on that treacherously idyllic evening. A story of disappointments, injustices, and a longing for solidarity in the struggle for a better live that none of them has ever given up. “We should talk to each other much more often and not just meet up every five years,” are the conspiratorial-sounding closing words of Tigran’s young colleague, herself number three on the party list. While the politicians show a willingness to debate political substance, the electorate is primarily looking for trustworthy personalities. After the event, a local resident tells us, “this party should send their charismatic leader here. A true army hero—I guarantee you, he would have convinced them all to vote for ‘National Renaissance.’” She is talking about Samvel Babayan, a supporter of the party who was the commander-in-chief Nagorno-Karabakh’s army between 1994 and 2000.

It seems as if people are talking about Nagorno-Karabakh’s future in two different dialects. A constructive discussion about domestic developments seems hardly possible under these circumstances. At the same time, the dangerous consensus that has determined foreign policies, and that has been dominated by military conflict with Azerbaijan, has been exposed for what it is: an unquestioned hushing-up. At heart it seems to be about slowly breaking down the barriers in communication between the people and political elites. This is not only true for the election campaigns. Possibly, one day the hope for a better future, which many in the de facto republic have held onto despite the difficult circumstances, can lead to a political culture based on dialogue. In this context, the question of international recognition for Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent republic suddenly appears secondary.

Translation by Sarah Schmidt.