The driver's chin nearly touches the steering wheel. His eyes are only small slits. Highly concentrated, he steers the old Mercedes on the bumpy mountain roads of South Caucasus, somewhere between the Armenian capital Yerevan and Stepanakert, capitol of the internationally unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. It is pitch-dark and foggy; we make the curves at walking pace. There are no boundary posts with reflectors along the roadside. Hans-Jörg Jenewein is dozing off on the back seat. He had landed in Yerevan sometime after midnight. The drive to Nagorno-Karabakh takes about five to six hours. Happy is the man who has a blessed sleep. We should arrive in Stepanakert at sunrise.
Jenewein is on a mission. He is one of about a hundred international election observers in Nagorno-Karabakh, where on this May 3rd the Parliament is to be elected. Usually, such tasks are undertaken by the OSCE. But increasingly, the international organization refuses to observe elections and referendums. The OSCE did not provide a group of observers neither during the referendum in Crimea in March 2014 nor the parliamentary and presidential elections of the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Lugansk in November 2014. The reason: Already with an observation mission would they virtually "legalize" and acknowledge this series of elections. Those unrecognized state formations are increasingly helping themselves by inviting observers independent of the OSCE - mostly parliamentarians, journalists and political analysts. These election observers then strictly follow the procedure of the OSCE.
"This is a matter that is very close to my heart," Jenewein says in a serious tone. In the end it is about helping a small country in its democratic development and in exercising self-determination. The first rays of sunlight flash over the mountains of the South Caucasus, the fog has lifted in the valleys. The border with Nagorno-Karabakh is now behind us; we drive through the villages and small settlements of the unrecognized republic. The windows are slightly opened, fresh mountain air blows inside. The driver, who ought to be completely exhausted, also makes a more relaxed impression and smiles. Some houses are adorned with the flag of Nagorno-Karabakh - red-blue-orange with a white staircase pattern. The Constitution of the Republic of Armenia explains the colors as follows: "The red symbolizes the Armenian Highland, the ongoing struggle of the Armenian people for survival, the preservation of the Christian faith, Armenia's independence and freedom. The blue symbolizes the will of the Armenian people to live under a peaceful sky. The Orange symbolizes the creative talent and hard-working nature of Armenians. "
Stepanakert, the capitol of Nagorno-Karabakh, unrolls in front of us - a town with about 55,000 residents. The Armenians assertively call their small republic "Artsakh", the historical name of a province of the Armenian kingdom in the first and second century BC. We go directly to the registration office in Stepanakert. Jenewein does not waste time. The elections start at 8 o’clock sharp. The Austrian FPÖ politician looks spick and span and wide awake despite the flight and hours-long mountain ride.
Jenewein is one of the most famous heads of the Freedom Party in Austria. Born in Vienna in 1974, the politician is a delegated member of the Bundesrat (Austrian Federal Council) since 2013. He already had been previously a member of the Federal Council from 2010 to 2013; he also served for a short time as a Member of the Nationalrat (Parliament). A graduate in political science, Jenewein made a name for himself in Vienna because he endeavored with some colleagues the care of the grave of the highly decorated Army pilot Walter Novotny. Attacks by his political opponents have always bounced off Jenewein like grease on Teflon. That alone makes him an ideal election observer. After all, whoever observes elections in internationally unrecognized territories needs to have a thick skin. Prior to the parliamentary elections, Azerbaijan, which considers Nagorno-Karabakh as a renegade province, announced their plans to open "criminal proceedings" against those international election observers who support the "Armenian separatists". Jenewein shakes his head in the face of such threats. "Whosoever considers democratic elections a threat should think even more seriously about where he actually stands politically."
Nagorno-Karabakh remains part of Azerbaijan in the eyes of the international community. Not even Armenia itself has until today officially recognized the small Caucasus republic. There have been international negotiations on the status of the small area since more than 20 years - so far without any significant results. Armenia and Azerbaijan are also directly involved in these negotiations. Should Armenia officially recognize the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, it would be regarded as the end of the negotiations by the other parties - particularly Azerbaijan. The result could mean war. And so is the entire region in a bizarre status quo, a peculiar intermediate state.
Jenewein gets himself registered; he briefly fixes the collar of his jacket and poses for the first press photographers. The Austrian is already well known in Nagorno-Karabakh. The news that his party - the FPÖ – has driven the entire political establishment before them when it came to the recognition of the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks in 1915 has spread to the farthest corners of the South Caucasus. FPÖ leader Hans-Christian Strache was suddenly featured in all media. The FPÖ venture caused a lot of anger in Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan swaggered from Ankara that he now plans "sanctions" against Austria. In Turkey it is forbidden to describe the massacre of the Armenian population, during which an estimated 1.5 million people perished, as "genocide". Jenewein shrugs off the Turkish threats. "One cannot expect something else from the leadership in Ankara," he says diplomatically. The tone suggests that Erdogan does not enjoy very much Jenewein’s respect.
The election observation begins; Jenewein is highly concentrated. Several polling stations are on the program. Jenewein’s task: Check if everything is running properly. This specifically means to critically examine whether the elections are as free, equal and secret. Therefore, he must speak with all those responsible, check the ballot boxes and their seals, see the electoral lists and talk to voters. The "atmosphere" also plays a role: In the polling stations no advertising for political parties is allowed; voters should not feel pressured. A total of about 100,000 citizens are eligible to vote. Nagorno-Karabakh comprises around 150,000 inhabitants - about as much as Darmstadt in Hessen. Seven parties are running for election, including conservatives, liberals and communists.
We go from one polling station to another. Jenewein strictly adheres to the OSCE procedure. He patiently listens to the reports of the election officials, makes critical inquiries and checks the ballot boxes and voting booths. He looks over the personnel’s shoulders if they accurately maintain the electoral registers. Lastly, no one may vote more than once. With a satisfied nod, the Austrian carries on. "I have the impression that the people are doing everything accurately.” And as a matter of fact: The parliamentary election is an important event in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is not only about electing a new parliament, but also about presenting themselves to the world as "an absolutely normal, democratic country”.
Although everything runs in a peaceful and orderly manner, we are constantly reminded of the difficult situation of the small country. The small town of Shushi lies at a hill in front of the capitol Stepanakert. During the war of independence, there was an Azerbaijani military garrison wherefrom Grad rockets were being fired at Stepanakert by the Azerbaijani Armed Forces. On 8 May 1992, the Armenians launched an offensive and took Shushi the following day. The city lay in ruins; the Azerbaijanis had desecrated the Armenian Cathedral Ghazanchetsots turning it into a weapons and explosives storage warehouse. Immediately, the Armenians set about to remove the mounted Grad rockets from the house of God. Armenian Orthodox clergymen helped them and held an impromptu mass. In 1998 the reconstruction of the cathedral was completed. Hans-Jörg Jenewein asks our translator to tell the story of the liberation of Shushi and lingers long in the cathedral, where he beholds the beautifully restored icons. The cathedral of Shushi is now the symbolic seat of the Armenian Orthodox Diocese of Artsakh.
The War of Independence between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan lasted more than six years. At the time when the Soviet Union was only a rotten structure, protests broke out in February 1988 in Nagorno-Karabakh, then a province within the Azerbaijani Soviet Republic, and declared itself independent from Azerbaijan. A meeting of representatives of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh called for unification with Armenia. Until 1991, the Soviet Union supported the Azerbaijanis in the Civil War. But after the collapse of the USSR the fronts shifted, and the conflict became increasingly international. Russia and Greece helped the Armenian side. Azerbaijan got the support of Turkey, which has always regarded the Azeris as "brothers". Even mercenaries and jihadists from around the world rushed to Azerbaijan to help in fighting Armenia. On the Azerbaijani side of the frontline Islamist Chechens, Afghans and the Turkish "Grey Wolves" roamed. Arms shipments to Baku came among others from Ukraine and Israel. On 12 May 1994, a cease-fire agreement came into force. During the war, the troops of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh together with the Armenian army brought large portions of the claimed territory under their control. Since then, hardly anything has budged. Azerbaijan insists on returning the breakaway region, Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia do not even think about sacrificing the costly fight for independence on the negotiating table. Internationally, the fronts are marked: The Council of Europe considers Nagorno-Karabakh as a "separatist forces" controlled territory. The UN Security Council has repeatedly confirmed that Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan.
Hans-Jörg Jenewein is at every step conscious that he is located in a geopolitical cauldron; it leaves the Austrian politician in no doubt. "It is therefore all the more important that we help the people here,” he says resolutely. But how does he view the negative attitude of the EU towards the elections in Nagorno-Karabakh? "The mutual dialogue on an equal footing and based on mutual respect is the only way to bring peace to the region. Every democratic initiative, especially the parliamentary elections, is a step towards normalization and democratization. Every European must have an interest in that. "
The polling stations close in the evening. Hans-Jörg Jenewein looks tired. The counting of votes will be monitored by other observers. "No complaints", Jenewein says again. "That was an orderly, free, secret and equal election."
A car pulls up, the driver gets out and stows Jenewein’s luggage in the trunk. He flies back from Yerevan to Vienna in the early hours of the following day. Again a six-hour’ drive through the night, back to sleeping in the back seat of the car roaring over potholes. Jenewein takes it sportingly and gets into the car with a wink. Mission accomplished.
This report was published in German language in ZUERST! news magazine (6/2015)
All images © 2015 Manuel Ochsenreiter