In an assessment highlighting the refreshing, yet still rare case of democracy flourishing and not floundering in the post-Soviet space, the Regional Studies Center (RSC) published an article for the “New Europe” newspaper in Brussels on 2 April entitled, “Elections in Nagorno-Karabakh. don’t dismiss democracy.”

In the article by RSC Director Richard Giragosian, he argued that “normally, a free and fair election is a welcome exercise of democracy and freedom.  But in the case of the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, a well-managed, multi-candidate and multi-party contest that would usually merit praise elsewhere garnered a quite different reaction.”

The article went on to state that “beyond the criticism of the election from Azerbaijan, which given the disputed status of Armenian-populated Karabakh region was expected, the European Union also reiterated that it “does not recognise the constitutional and legal framework” of the election, adding that the contest “cannot prejudice the determination of the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh or the outcome of the ongoing negotiation process.”

For their part, the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs (France, Russia and the United States) also weighed in with a statement on March 31, issued as the sole diplomatic entity empowered to mediate Karabakh conflict.  In their response, they also noted that they “do not accept the results of these ‘elections’ as affecting the legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh and stress that the results in no way prejudge the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh or the outcome of the ongoing negotiations to bring a lasting and peaceful settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”

Recognising the legal constraints and diplomatic precedents inherent in any response by either the EU or the OSCE mediators, such criticism should not come as a surprise.  Nor should its relevance be overstated.  Nevertheless, for the international community, as well as for the EU and OSCE, there should be a more candid appreciation of the importance of democracy in Karabakh as both an imperative and an impulse toward creating a new environment more conducive to resolving the conflict through diplomacy over the force of arms.

Moreover, as is especially evident in the current crisis within the European Union (most notably as in the case of Hungary most recently), the Karabakh election stands out as a rare confirmation and endorsement of European values and norms.

But to be fair, in Karabakh (or “Artsakh” as it is locally termed), the combined presidential-parliamentary election of March 31 was not held in normal times.  And there are two factors that make this election both significant and different.

First, as a conflict-prone to diplomatic deadlock, any advance in democracy by any of the parties to the conflict must be an important step forward.  Following Armenia’s own “Velvet Revolution,” as an example of a successful non-violent victory for democracy, the deepening of democracy in Karabakh can only offer fresh optimism in the outlook for sincere peace talks.  And against that backdrop, it only heightens the contrast with authoritarian Azerbaijan, which has done far too little to demonstrate goodwill or a genuine commitment to a negotiated resolution to the Karabakh conflict.

Thus, from this perspective, the election result was actually less important than the election itself, as a strengthening of democracy and an affirmation of democratic values and ideals.  And with the successful rite of passage of democratic elections in both Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, the burden now is on Azerbaijan to graduate to a higher role as a true “partner for peace.”

But unlike the more optimistic implications outlined above, the second factor making this election especially different is the bad timing.  More specifically, after an inconclusive first round of voting, the Karabakh authorities resolved to hold a repeat election on April 14.  But this move may be seen as an exercise in poor judgement or even an example of public irresponsibility.  Such an indictment stems from the stubborn refusal to postpone the run-off, particularly because in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, these are clearly not normal times.  From this perspective, even the presidential and parliamentary election of March 31 was a grave concern, and perhaps a serious mistake.

Although the threat of infection and contagion was obvious throughout the public campaign, the voting process itself only magnifies the threat of infection as large numbers of people congregate and come out to vote.  In this period of global quarantine, isolation, social distancing and lockdown, it was not only irresponsible for the Karabakh authorities to proceed with the vote, but with the decision to hold a second-round run-off election in mid-April, it is also a looming threat, tempting fate a second time.

Moreover, the threat from any election in Karabakh is magnified by the presence of large numbers of military personnel, where confined quarters of troops are especially vulnerable to infection and the rapid spread of the virus. And as one of the most militarised societies in the world, the potential danger and elevated risk are being seriously ignored.  Thus, this stubborn reluctance to hold yet another election is an act of irresponsibility and failure of leadership, the implications are far more severe than ever before. Any outbreak from a second voting day may ravage not only the population of Karabakh and beyond but would pose a “second wave” threat of viral contagion in Armenia, not to mention a possible outbreak that may decimate the armed forces.

Therefore, looking forward, there is an overriding opportunity to focus on the more pressing public health threat, which is a shared crisis that requires a shared response.  Perhaps in this new context of the coronavirus emergency and bolstered by a fresh “wave” of democracy in Karabakh, as well as in Armenia previously, the Nagorno Karabakh conflict will benefit from a renewed sense of urgency and commitment by all parties to the conflict.  Otherwise, the earlier status quo will become an even more deadly “race to the bottom” for all.”