Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Ara Harutiunian poised for Karabakh presidency?

Prime Minister Harutiunyan. Photo: RFERL Armenian Service
The May 3 election for parliament in the Nagorno Karabakh Republic did little to change the balance of political power inside NKR, but it did reinforce earlier trends: the strengthening of prime minister Ara Harutiunyan and his Azat Hairenik party and their apparent alliance with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaks) led by deputy prime minister Artur Aghabekyan that came distant second. 

The election also confirmed continued marginalization of the outgoing parliament’s speaker Ashot Ghulyan and his Democratic Party (also associated with ex-president Arkady Ghoukasyan) and the former presidential candidate Vitaly Balasanyan, who won 33 percent of the vote in 2012, whereas his Sharzhoom 1988 party gained under 7 percent on May 3. 

The general trend appears to duplicate the dynamics of Armenian politics, with one party emerging to dominate the landscape, replacing the coalition arrangements of the 2000s.

NKR is expected to hold its next presidential election by the summer of 2017 and prime minister Ara Harutiunyan will likely be a top contender in that vote. It is unclear, however, if he would be the favorite pick of incumbent president Bako Sahakyan, who may instead prefer the current director of the National Security Service Arshavir Gharamyan.

Parliament seats captured by main parties in 2005, 2010 and 2015 elections
Certainly, a key role will be played by the leadership in Yerevan as well: in 2007 the then president-in-waiting Serge Sargsyan was instrumental in the relatively unexpected selection of Sahakyan as the establishment’s presidential candidate instead of Ghulyan. But that endorsement was also a function of Sahakyan’s political weight inside Karabakh. By that measure, Harutiunyan currently appears to be a frontrunner for 2017.

Still the 40-year-old Harutiunyan also remains relatively unknown outside Karabakh. Below is my interview with him published in the Armenian Reporter on November 23, 2009.  

Prime Minister Ara Harutiunian speaks of Karabakh's growing economy and opposes retreat on national issues 
by Emil Sanamyan
STEPANAKERT, NAGORNO-KARABAKH - Prime Minister Ara Harutiunian and other Nagorno-Karabakh officials arrived in the United States this week ahead of the annual Thanksgiving telethon organized by the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund. On November 5, Washington editor Emil Sanamyan spoke with Mr. Harutiunian in his office in Stepanakert. A translation of that conversation follows. (Mr. Harutiunian's bio appears at the end of this interview.)
Emil Sanamyan: Mr. Prime Minister, earlier this week you made a number of statements rejecting the territorial concessions envisioned under what is known as the Madrid proposal for a Karabakh settlement, unveiled by France, Russia, and the United States in July. At the time the NKR Foreign Ministry broadly criticized the proposal, but your comments were more specific. Could you elaborate on NKR's position with regard to that proposal?
Ara Harutiunian: The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic has not been formally presented with the Madrid proposal. We have seen the statement and media commentary, but as long as we are not formally presented with a proposal, we cannot officially accept or reject it.
That said, we have a position repeatedly articulated by our president and other officials, a position that the international community needs to appreciate.
First, the people of Artsakh have already exercised their right to self-determination.
Second, in a popular referendum, we adopted our constitution, which specifies that Artsakh's territory is its present-day territory comprising 11,400 sq km (4,400 sq mi), and it is not the territory of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast.
Of course, we support the negotiation process and understand that negotiations imply mutual compromises. But in the end, the negotiations can produce results only when Artsakh authorities become involved. Without our full participation, there will be no results.
ES: Another issue generating a lot of debate is the terms of the Armenia-Turkey protocols signed on October 10. The Armenian government has invested a lot of effort into that diplomatic initiative and there has also been a lot of criticism of the protocols both in Armenia and the diaspora. What is your view of that process?
AH: Generally we would welcome any step that contributes to Armenia's economic development. But such a step should not come with preconditions or disregard our national dignity and identity.
The future of our country depends on economic development. Armenians are business savvy, and if they don't have opportunities in the homeland, they will find them elsewhere; emigration leads to demographic problems.
It is obvious that a Turkey-Armenia border opening would create new opportunities for development. Those who argue that [Turkish imports] would damage our economy are not correct. The same argument, after all, could be made against countries we have open borders with, Georgia and Iran. But that is not the case, and reflects a backward-looking policy.
Border opening with Turkey is important economically, but once again it should come without preconditions, without historical revisionism, and without a link to Artsakh negotiations.
If any one of these conditions is not met, we will be opposed and will find the signing of these documents to be senseless. But as far as I know, the president of the Republic of Armenia, in all his statements, has ruled out any compromises on these issues.
I would stress once again that a solution to the Artsakh issue depends on Artsakh itself. Any deals reached contrary to the will of Artsakh people will remain on paper.
You will recall this is what happened when former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosian agreed to the return of Kelbajar [after its capture in April 1993]. Those efforts were in vain. Moreover, our army was able to liberate Tigranakert, Kovsakan, and other areas [later in 1993].
Confident about security
ES: As prime minister you deal mostly with economic issues, but economics and security are quite interconnected. Azerbaijan is continuing to arm itself and has repeatedly expressed aggressive intentions. But there is little Armenian criticism of this militarization and there is virtually no criticism of countries selling weapons to Azerbaijan. Why not?
AH: We of course do not welcome Azerbaijan's policy that allocates so much money for its armed forces and weapons purchases, but there is also little we can do to influence this process.
Instead, we do what we can to make Azerbaijan think twice before launching hostilities. We have an efficient defense system that is not limited to today's standing army. Every citizen of Artsakh is a [reservist] soldier and will defend his motherland the way we did in the early 1990s.
Additionally, it is important to note that, say, the price of a modern tank is in millions of dollars, while antitank weapons cost only several thousand. We are not preparing for an aggression; we are preparing for defense [so our costs are lower]. However, we also have serious counterattack capabilities.
Each year, we implement large-scale programs aimed at increasing capabilities of our army, and strengthening our defense perimeter.
Azerbaijan can make the calculations and knows that the Artsakh Army will remain a guarantor of regional peace and stability for a long time. We have made it clear that a new war would be very damaging for Azerbaijan not just in human and financial terms, but also through loss of territory.
We are confident about our capabilities and ready to confront any aggressor.
Growing the diaspora-homeland link
ES: Earlier today I visited the Artsakh History Museum where a guide showed me a picture of your older brother who was killed in the war. This subject of war of course remains very close to everyone in Artsakh.
But for many others, including in the diaspora, the war has become a relatively distant memory and the sense of danger to Artsakh, to Armenians, has largely passed. Why is Artsakh still important?
AH: It must be harder to maintain the attachment to your motherland when you live far from it rather than when you live here. From far you miss it, but nostalgia alone can be exhausted over the years.
To preserve this attachment to Armenia, to Artsakh, we encourage diaspora Armenians to visit the motherland more often. Once you visit and experience Artsakh, you will fall in love with Artsakh, live Artsakh. Our policy now is to promote such visits.
In part for this purpose, we are now constructing an airport, improving roads, improving the access to our historical and cultural monuments. Excavations are underway at Tigranakert, which has a significant meaning for the whole Armenian people. Works are also underway at Amaras, Dadivank, and in Shushi. There are more and better hotels, restaurants, and transportation in Artsakh than ever before.
The more our compatriots visit Artsakh, the stronger the connections become. We understand that time can have an effect. But even from far away, you do not stop loving your family or your motherland.
ES: What are your priorities for the Armenia Fund Telethon on November 26?
AH: This year, donations made to the Fund will help development of Shushi. Projects there include reconstruction of the former Shushi girls' school, which will house NKR's Ministry of Culture. It is also planned to move the local branch of [Armenia's] Agriculture University to Shushi.
We already began work to relocate NKR's Supreme Court and other judicial entities to Shushi. We hope to see these projects completed in the next five to seven years.
Preparing for the 2010 elections
ES: Last weekend the Free Motherland party had its congress and elected you as its leader. What is the history and political plans of this party?
AH: The Free Motherland party was established in January 2005 and I was one of its founders. We participated in 2005 parliamentary elections, and at the time came in second.
We also took part in the [2007] presidential elections and supported the current president, Bako Sahakian. The main theses of our party's program were reflected in the election program of President Sahakian.
Today, our party has the biggest faction in the National Assembly, holding 12 of 33 seats. We are now preparing for parliamentary elections due next year and will have a new election program. Should we win, we will present our program to the president and after receiving his approval we will implement it.
ES: Is the president a member of your party?
AH: No.
ES: Are you already the main ruling party?
AH: No. In the last presidential elections, four parties including Free Motherland, Artsakh Democratic Party, ARF (Dashnaktsutiun), and Movement 88 supported the president. Today they all are represented in parliament and are part of government.
ES: How does President Sahakian's administration differ from former president Arkady Ghukasian's in 1997-2007? Are there significant differences, or is it the continuation of the past administration?
AH: Of course the differences are significant. The [incumbent] president has his own election program, working style, team, and ideas for development. Of course all this is reflected in the country's economic indexes and demographic changes. Today Artsakh's economy is growing at a good pace in spite of the world economic crisis.
ES: Is that a result of the president's efforts and foreign investments?
AH: Yes, investments, economic policy, and implementation of anti-corruption programs have all resulted in those indexes, and we are working for this dynamic of development surely to continue.
ES: Thank you.
Editor's note: The Reporter extends its gratitude to Aram Avetisyan from the NKR Office in the United States for his assistance with translation.

Ara Harutiunian, 35, became the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic's sixth prime minister, having been appointed to the post in September 2007 by President Bako Sahakian.
Since October 2009, Mr. Harutiunian also returned to the post of chair of the Azat Hairenik (Free Motherland) political party, which has the largest bloc in Karabakh's National Assembly and is currently a favorite in next year's parliamentary elections.
Prior to his appointment as prime minister, from 2005 to 2007 Mr. Harutiunian was leader of Azat Hairenik party, a member of parliament, and chair of the parliament's budget committee.
Before entering politics, Mr. Harutiunian worked with ArmAgroBank, heading its Askeran (1997-99) and Stepanakert (1999-2004) branches. From 1995 to 1997, he was an aide to the NKR minister of economy and finance.
Mr. Harutiunian studied at Armenia's Economics Institute and the Artsakh State University, where he earned undergraduate (1996) and master's degrees in economics (1998).
Mr. Harutiunian is a veteran of the Karabakh war, having joined the NKR Self Defense forces in 1992. He is married and has two children.

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