How then do the above factors interact with the context of non-recognition to influence democratic outcomes in Nagorny Karabakh? Since declaring itself independent in 1991 Nagorny Karabakh has held three presidential elections and four sets of parliamentary elections. Although they increasingly attract observers from a range of international non-governmental organisations, as well as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), they are not recognised by the international community as a whole. The ruling elite in Karabakh emerged out of the wartime leadership, which since the accession of Ghukasian as president has increasingly turned towards outwardly civic politics ostensibly rooted in multiparty politics. Opposition in Karabakh has developed in response to specifically local factors but also as a function of wider Armenian politics. The main ‘opposition’ party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, or Dashnaks) forms part of the ruling coalition in Armenia and is a major political force in the Armenian diaspora (see profiles); previously allied with the government in Karabakh, the ARF went into opposition after a dispute over its representation in government cadres. Other opposition parties have been formed by reform-minded intellectuals, successors to the communist tradition and allies of the ruling elite seeking to fragment the opposition vote. Elections in Karabakh nonetheless revolve less around concrete issues or policy choices than raw questions of power: who gets the impunity conferred by political office?
Regime candidates generally dominated elections until the victory of a candidate for Movement-88, a new reformist party, in the 2004 elections to the mayoralty in Stepanakert. Expectations that oppositional success would be repeated at the June 2005 parliamentary elections proved false, however. The main opposition bloc, composed of the ARF and Movement-88, won only 3 of 33 mandates with 25 per cent of the vote; the regime-backed parties Democratic Artsakh and Free Homeland dominated the vote with 64 per cent between them. Some 130 international observers, including representatives of the CIS, the British Helsinki Human Rights Group and a number of United States policymakers, observed the elections; their assessment was almost exclusively positive. Independent media and civil society representatives, however, articulated complaints regarding the conduct of the pre-election campaign, especially the alleged provision of economic incentives to vote for regime-backed parties, and changes to the electoral code removing the ‘50 per cent plus’ requirement to win in one round and the second round run-off system where this is not achieved. In sum, observers and opposition representatives did not question their validity or conduct, yet by further entrenching the incumbent regime the elections appeared to move Karabakh no nearer to a genuinely participatory politics.
What explains the divergence between the apparently assiduous conduct of the elections and their failure to act as a mechanism for internal political transformation? At least in part this may be explained by the paradoxical ways in which non-recognition structures the legitimacy of de facto governments. The withholding of recognition in a context of permanent insecurity and a homogenised population allows the Stepanakert regime to be a single-issue government embodying the quest for sovereignty. Non-recognition thus locates the internal legitimacy of the de facto state in its mere existence, rather than its adherence to democratic principles or responsiveness to society. The reification of ‘stability’ as the cornerstone of Karabakh politics reflects a tacit consensus across the political arena on the parameters of dissent under conditions of constant ‘siege’. The disparagement shown by government and opposition alike to revolutionary events in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan reflects this consensus. This suggests an important distinction between the rules of the game in Karabakh politics as internal players perceive them, and criteria of democracy perceived by external observers.
Nonetheless, the government of Karabakh goes to great lengths to demonstrate compliance with international expectations of democratic states. It has voluntarily implemented a number of international standards applying to de jure states. As the 2005 parliamentary elections demonstrated, it also takes great care to ensure procedural and technical regularity in its electoral processes, far more so than many regimes in the region’s de jure states. Certainly, this strategy may be seen as contributing to the regime’s internal legitimacy, yet it may also be seen as a response to Western agendas of democratisation, where the presence of certain ‘markers’ such as regular elections and multiparty politics is taken to indicate a healthy transition. This is a rational response where Western policymakers have framed the issue of recognition in terms of ‘standards before status’, as they have done in Kosovo.
In this context it seems appropriate to speak of contrasting internal and external vectors of democratisation. Internally we are witnessing an uneven and highly contested process of liberalisation not dissimilar to that of de jure states but where reformists are encumbered by the peculiar conditions of non-recognition. Externally we see the projection of democratic statehood to the outside world in support of Karabakh’s claim to sovereignty. The outcome of the 2005 elections may be better understood from this perspective. In their internal function the elections did little to channel the recent emergence of greater pluralism, serving instead to entrench the incumbent regime and fortify it from challengers. Externally, however, the elections successfully projected the ideal of a pluralistic, participatory process worthy of a functioning democratic state.