Nagorno-Karabakh president quits as breakaway territory's crisis deepens

Nagorno-Karabakh president quits as breakaway territory's crisis deepens
President Harutiunyan expressed the need for new leadership in Nagorno-Karabakh to better address the significant challenges it faces, nearly three years after a devastating defeat in a war with Azerbaijan. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews September 1, 2023
After months of speculation, Arayik Harutiunyan, president of Nagorno-Karabakh, officially announced his resignation on August 31. This decision comes amidst a deepening humanitarian crisis in the largely ethnic Armenian breakaway territory, primarily caused by Azerbaijan's eight-month blockade of the Lachin corridor, its only link with Armenia and the outside world.
In a written statement, Harutiunyan expressed the need for new leadership in the region to better address the significant challenges it faces, nearly three years after a devastating defeat in a war with Azerbaijan.
He cited his background and Azerbaijan's stance as obstacles to flexible policy-making. He emphasised that the war's defeat and resulting difficulties had eroded trust in the authorities, including the presidency. Azerbaijan has been asking for the resignation of the entire de facto state ruling apparatus of the territory for months. 
Harutiunyan disclosed that he made this final decision two days ago after careful analysis of his interactions with internal and external stakeholders and the public. He announced his intention to  formally submit his resignation to the Karabakh parliament on September 1.
Speculation about Harutiunyan's resignation had been brewing since Azerbaijan blocked traffic through the Lachin corridor in December. In March, he passed a constitutional amendment that allowed the local parliament to elect an interim president in the event of his resignation, who would serve the remainder of his five-year term until May 2025. 
Such an amendment effectively dismisses the immediate need for elections for the new president through a public vote. Some feared that new elections could serve as a pretext for Baku to initiate a new military operation.
In 2025, the Russian peacekeeping mission's term also ends, potentially leaving Nagorno-Karabakh vulnerable. This mission began right after the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. 
Harutiunyan did not reveal his preferred successor, but some Armenian media outlets suggested that Samvel Shahramanyan, the security council secretary, might be the frontrunner for the position. Shahramanyan was appointed as the state minister on August 31 and was among the Karabakh representatives who negotiated with Azerbaijani officials earlier in the year at the Russian peacekeeping contingent's headquarters in Karabakh. 
While Harutiunian's party holds a significant number of seats in parliament, it lacks an overall majority. In August, they supported an opposition figure, Davit Ishkhanyan, as parliament speaker, who will now fulfil presidential duties temporarily until Harutiunyan's successor is elected.
Harutiunyan's resignation seems to have been prompted by the tightening of the Azerbaijani blockade of the Lachin corridor in mid-June, exacerbating shortages of essential supplies such as food and medicine in Karabakh. Authorities in Stepanakert have recently acknowledged the region's shortage of flour, announcing restrictions on bread purchases for each family in the capital and other towns.
Following the commencement of the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh in December of the previous year, discussions regarding potential changes in the government took a backseat, while they had been an active topic of discussion at the war's end in 2020. 
Harutyunyan's resignation also coincides with the recent demand from Russian-Armenian billionaire and former state minister Ruben Vardanyan for him to step down. On August 21, Vardanyan accused Harutyunyan of making promises to resign and not keeping his word. Several days before this, a government militia had entered Nagorno-Karabakh's parliament to show support for Harutyunyan.

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