First published in July 21, 2007 Armenian Reporter
Man in the News: Bako Sahakian
STEPANAKERT, Karabakh – As journalists and observers entered Karabakh this week through the winding mountain road, they were met by unusually cool and rainy weather and a banner, “Bako Sahakian is our candidate” straddling the main road through the Kashatagh district.
And on July 19, as voters flocked to polling stations around Karabakh to vote for their next president, the 46-year-old Mr. Sahakian had the biggest advantage any candidate could wish for: a widespread public belief in his inevitable victory.
This expectation began to take shape last spring after Mr. Sahakian, the director of Karabakh’s National Security Service, was nominated on a civic initiative and soon received endorsements from leaders of all four political parties represented in Karabakh’s parliament; the war veterans’ association, Karabakh’s most important nongovernmental group; and most recently President Arkady Ghoukassian.
Still, in a July 17 interview with the Armenian Reporter, Mr. Sahakian said that he is “not a pro-establishment candidate,” and that he sees both “achievements and shortcomings” in Mr. Ghoukassian’s presidency.
When asked to name some of the shortcomings, however, Mr. Sahakian declined to go into specifics. He did note, however, that public concerns with social and economic problems, such as availability of well-paying jobs and state-funded infrastructure and services, are the focus of his campaign.
Mr. Sahakian appeared able to win over the two main segments of the Karabakh electorate – those who are generally happy with the outgoing president’s policies and see Mr. Sahakian as a supporter of the status quo, and those who seek a stepped-up government reform effort.
In the July 17 interview, Mr. Sahakian also argued for the continuation of the government policy of insisting on Karabakh’s participation in negotiations on the future status of the republic.
Asked if Karabakh should take steps to seek unilateral recognition of the republic, Mr. Sahakian said that he did “not think it was the right approach” and held out hope that direct negotiations between Karabakh and Azerbaijan would bring about a mutually agreeable result.
And when asked whether Karabakh should participate more actively in the Russia-backed effort to coalesce the four unrecognized republics in the former Soviet territory, and act through a joint platform, Mr. Sahakian was noncommittal, adding that issues that “do not contradict our interests can become a subject for discussion.”
A Stepanakert native and graduate of one of the local high schools, Mr. Sahakian did his mandatory military service and then began an initially unremarkable career as a skilled worker and then a supplies specialist for the local government.
But just as for other Karabakhis, for Mr. Sahakian things changed radically in 1988 with the start of the movement for reunification with Armenia. He joined the Karabakh self-defense forces in 1990 and from 1992 and throughout the war was one of the key persons responsible for supplying these forces with everything they needed, from food to weapons. Mr. Sahakian was decorated with Karabakh’s highest medal for valor – the Combat Cross, first degree.
From 1997 to 1999, Mr. Sahakian was seconded to Armenia’s Ministry of Interior and National Security (then headed by the current Prime Minister Serge Sargsian). Because that assignment involved a lengthy posting in Moscow, Mr. Sahakian’s opponents suggested that he may not fulfill the 10-year residency requirement for presidential nominees. But the Central Electoral Commission ruled that in those years Mr. Sahakian remained in state service and therefore was qualified to run.
In 1999, Mr. Sahakian returned to Karabakh to serve first as the Interior (Police) Minister and since 2001 as National Security Service director, a position he resigned last month when he sought registration as a candidate.
To those who observed him closely in Stepanakert, he is known as a decent family man with street smarts and a knack for justice and keeping his word. As minister and government service director Mr. Sahakian was praised for his energy, leadership skills, and defense of the small guy. And even his current opponents have seen him as a potential ally for reform.
Man in the News: Masis Mayilian
STEPANAKERT, Karabakh – Here in Stepanakert at least, 39-year-old presidential candidate Masis Mayilian appeared to be running a campaign as prominent as that of frontrunner Bako Sahakian, at least if judged by the availability of posters. Outside the capital, however, the story was different and Mr. Sahakian’s visibility was clearly unrivaled.
But even in Stepanakert, Mr. Mayilian’s sole campaign office was located in the office of an electronics store located on a side street, while Mr. Sahakian’s campaign boasted nine offices.
Despite a clear mismatch in resources and financial support, Mr. Mayilian himself insisted in a July 17 interview with the Armenian Reporter that he was “only thinking of victory.”
Mr. Mayilian announced his intention to run for president later than the other four candidates, and just as the deadline for nominations was approaching. Asked why he decided to run, Mr. Mayilian pointed to 15 years of experience in government, and expressed a conviction that he was in a position to implement “a program of reforms in order to strengthen our country and speed up its development tempo.”
Mr. Mayilian also claimed that the political parties’ decision not to nominate their own candidates, but jointly endorse Mr. Sahakian put the “conduct of elections under threat.” He argued that “were it not for my nomination, this would have become not an election, but an appointment with no real alternative offered.”
The focus of Mr. Mayilian’s campaign has been on “real reform, supremacy of the law, and international recognition of Artsakh.” He pointed to what he called “conservative forces that have united around the [Sahakian] candidacy” and suggested that the current political struggle transcends the traditional authorities-opposition divide and pits reformers against supporters of the status quo in both camps.
And, Mr. Mayilian continued, although leaders of all major political forces have endorsed Mr. Sahakian, many rank-and-file members, as well as many midlevel state officials are backing Mr. Mayilian, but are reluctant to do so openly.
Mr. Mayilian’s supporters have complained to the Central Election Commission that local officials have been hampering his campaign and supporting Mr. Sahakian. One Mayilian supporter in Mardakert region was reportedly forced to retire from his job in the state natural gas utility as he made his political preference public.
Mr. Mayilian also said that all seats on central and local electoral commissions are controlled by appointees of the president and parliamentary parties that have endorsed Mr. Sahakian, and that Mr. Mayilian’s campaign is only represented by observers.
“I only hope that [electoral commission members] would be guided by state thinking and patriotism and would not approve of falsifications,” he said, adding that he hoped “the voting and counting are conducted in a normal way without violations.”
A native of Stepanakert, Mr. Mayilian graduated from the local high school and, following mandatory army service, from the mathematics faculty of the local pedagogic institute in 1991. For about a year, Mr. Mayilian was enrolled at the Yerevan State University graduate school studying social psychology, but then in 1992, as fighting raged throughout Karabakh, he decided to return to his hometown to work in the State Defense Committee as media liaison.
Mr. Mayilian became one of the first staff members of Karabakh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, established in 1993, and rose through the ranks to become deputy minister in 2001. Throughout his years at the ministry he was one of the key individuals representing Karabakh in international negotiations and is widely considered to be one of Karabakh’s most experienced diplomats.
Most local voters praise Mr. Mayilian as smart and incorruptible, but many also point to his lack of experience in running domestic affairs.