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4 September 2023

Nagorno-Karabakh's Leader Resigns

The de facto president had been under pressure to step down, including from billionaire former state minister Ruben Vardanyan.

Nagorno-Karabakh's Leader Resigns

Image: Arayik Harutyunyan/Fb

(Eurasianet) Arayik Harutyunyan has resigned as de facto president of the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, effective on September 1.

He made the announcement on Facebook on August 31, posting: "I made this final decision two days ago, taking into account my contacts in the past weeks with all domestic and foreign actors and the public."

There had been speculation for weeks about his possible resignation and he openly mused about it amid demonstrations this week in the region's de facto capital, Stepanakert. 

Harutyunyan took office in May 2020. Together with leaders of the Republic of Armenia, he oversaw the Armenian side's defeat in the Second Karabakh War in fall of that year which saw the de facto statelet lose most of the territory it claimed. 

The remaining area controlled by the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (usually referred to as Artsakh by Armenians) has been under Azerbaijani blockade since December 2022, and that blockade has been total or near-total since June 2023.

The resulting shortages of foodstuffs and essential supplies contributed to growing frustration with Harutyunyan's rule. 

In his resignation announcement, Harutyunyan wrote that the "unstable geopolitical situation" and "Artsakh's internal political and social environment" required a more flexible approach to the region's future that could start with his departure.

"My biography and Azerbaijan's attitude towards it artificially create a number of conditions that cause significant problems from the point of view of building our next steps and conducting a flexible policy. In addition, the defeat in the war and the subsequent difficulties in the country have significantly reduced the trust in the authorities, especially the president, which has seriously hindered the further course of proper governance," said the former president.

Azerbaijan declared Harutyunyan a "terrorist" during the 2020 war for allegedly ordering the shelling of civilians. Baku initiated a criminal case against him and placed him on an international wanted list.

Before stepping down, Harutyunyan pushed through a constitutional amendment that enabled Karabakh's legislature to elect an interim president in case of the incumbent's early resignation. 

Hence, the National Assembly will elect an interim president within ten days to serve out the rest of Harutyunyan's term ending 2025.

Along with his resignation, Harutyunyan also dismissed Gurgen Nersisyan as state minister, which is the second-highest-ranking executive position in the territory. Shortly afterward, Artak Beglaryan announced he was stepping down as advisor to the state minister. 

Harutyunyan named Samvel Shahramanyan, the former Security Council secretary who also headed the team negotiating with Azerbaijan earlier in March, as the new state minister.

The Ruben Vardanyan factor

The former president's loudest and most influential critic was Ruben Vardanyan, a Russian-Armenian billionaire who moved to Nagorno-Karabakh last September in order to take on a leadership role. 

Harutyunyan appointed him to the newly empowered position of state minister but sacked him from that post in February, after just four months in the job.

In a Facebook video address on August 19, Vardanyan, who has remained in Karabakh, demanded Harutyunyan's resignation, claiming that he had reneged on several previous promises to step down. 

The address came after a group of civilian militia supportive of Harutyunyan entered the parliament building in an apparent show of force against opponents calling for his resignation.  

That event in turn took place two weeks after the de facto parliament had elected MP Davit Ishkhanyan, an opponent of Harutyunyan's and a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutyun, as its new speaker. 

Tigran Grigoryan, a Karabakh native and the president of the Regional Center of Democracy and Security in Yerevan, told RFE/RL that Harutyunyan's resignation resulted from pressure from Vardanyan and the region's still-influential former presidents. 

"Vardanyan consolidated the former presidents and their supporters, as well as the opposition parties in Karabakh, and their collective demand compelled Harutyunyan to resign," he said. 

He was referring to former de facto presidents Bako Sahakyan (in office 2007-20) and Arkadi Ghukasyan (1997-2007), who are broadly considered to be allied with the former presidents of the Republic of Armenia (Robert Kocharyan and Serj Sargsyan) that are now in opposition there. 

Grigoryan noted rumors that Samvel Shahramanyan, the newly appointed state minister, would be chosen by MPs as the new president. 

"They're transitioning to create a collective body, consisting of the former leaders and security forces, as the new decision-maker. Shahramanyan is not an independent political figure but rather a representative of the group," he said, adding that it's still unclear what effect the change in leadership will have on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.