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By Hrant Aleksanian, Shakeh Avoyan in Stepanakert and Emil Danielyan in Yerevan

Arkady Ghukasian, the incumbent president of Nagorno-Karabakh, swept to a predictable landslide victory in Sunday's presidential election in the Armenian-populated disputed territory, grabbing 89 percent of the vote, officials in Stepanakert announced Monday. Ghukasian welcomed their outcome as an overwhelming public endorsement of his policies and again warned Azerbaijan against attempting to regain control of Karabakh by force.

Independent international observers, meanwhile, described the polls as largely democratic.

According to the preliminary results of the vote issued by the unrecognized republic's Central Election Commission (CEC), Ghukasian's nearest rival, former parliament speaker Artur Tovmasian, received 7.7 percent. The two other candidates, Christian Democratic leader Albert Ghazarian and Miasnutyun (Unity) party leader Grigory Afanasian, trailed the two men with 2.1 percent and 1.3 respectively, the official figures show.

The CEC said 76 percent of some 90,000 eligible electors took part in the voting, which international monitors say proceeded without major irregularities. There were no complaints filed by Ghukasian's challengers. Tovmasian and his aides said on Sunday that they are satisfied with the authorities' conduct of the elections.

All four presidential candidates ruled out Karabakh's return to Azerbaijani rule during the election campaign, saying that re-unification with Armenia remains the ultimate aim of the Karabakh Armenians. Meeting with journalists after the announcement of his victory, Ghukasian warned: “Any attempt by Azerbaijan to bring Karabakh into submission would lead to war.”

Like all previous elections held in the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Sunday's ballot was denounced by Azerbaijan. "The elections were not legitimate and their results have no legal power," an Azerbaijani foreign ministry spokesman told Reuters in Baku.

International community has likewise refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Karabakh vote, arguing that it should have been held only after an Armenian-Azerbaijan agreement on the breakaway enclave’s status.

However, the authorities in Stepanakert, backed by Armenia proper, counter that only elected representatives of Karabakh can have a mandate to continue peace talks with Azerbaijan. The presence of two U.S. congressmen and about a hundred international election monitors was a major boost to their case.

“The elections reminded me very much of our elections in the United States,” Rep. Frank Pallone, co-chairman of Congress’ Armenian Caucus, told RFE/RL in Stepanakert, adding that he was impressed with the high voter turnout. “It says a lot about Karabakh and its people. It shows that the people of Karabakh are a real nation and are willing to do what's necessary to be Western and democratic.”

Another pro-Armenian congressman, Lloyd Doggett, called the Karabakh vote “a step in the right direction.” “Karabakh has chosen democracy instead of military or pseudo-military rule,” Doggett said. “Despite many obstacles that the Azeris put in the way of peace, I hope that this election will encourage Karabakh and Armenia to take bold steps for peace.”

The international monitors, for their part, said the presidential elections largely met democratic standards. “Nagorno-Karabakh has made demonstrable progress in building democracy and its authorities have made a serious effort to conduct the 2002 polls by democratic means,” a private American monitoring group comprising former government officials and scholars concluded in its preliminary report.

The report welcomes, in particular, the four candidates’ support for “civilian control over the military.” It also calls for “fundamental structural changes” in Karabakh election procedures, saying that the local CEC should become more independent and representative.

The five-member monitoring team was led by James Hooper, a retired U.S State Department official. It also included Richard Viets, former U.S. ambassador to Jordan and Tanzania.

Meanwhile, Ghukasian on Monday received official congratulations from Armenian President Robert Kocharian, who himself had led Karabakh from 1992-97. “Your reelection is a free expression of the will of the Artsakh people to march on resolutely along the path of freedom, independence and democracy,” Kocharian said in a letter to the NKR president.

Ghukasian first became NKR president in August 1997 in a pre-term election called shortly after Kocharian was appointed prime minister of Armenia. The most serious challenge to his rule came in June 1999 when he crossed swords with General Samvel Babayan, then commander of the Karabakh army and the republic’s most powerful man. The power struggle culminated in Babayan’s ouster from government in late 1999.

In March 2000, Ghukasian survived an apparent assassination attempt which he claims was hatched by the once powerful general. The NKR leader was seriously wounded in the legs when gunmen opened fire on his limousine in Stepanakert.

One year later, after a politically charged trial, a Karabakh court convicted Babayan of masterminding the assault, sentencing him to 14 years in prison despite his claims of innocence. The ex-commander and his supporters believe that the case against Babayan is politically motivated, accusing Ghukasian of stifling any opposition to his tightening grip on power.

Similar accusations were later made by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) party which emerged as the main opposition force in Karabakh after Babayan’s imprisonment. But the influential pan-Armenian party subsequently softened its approach to the authorities in Stepanakert and eventually decided to endorse Ghukasian’s reelection bid.

The unexpected move made the outcome of the Karabakh elections a forgone conclusion. It followed an apparently far-reaching agreement with Ghukasian which will likely land Dashnaktsutyun top posts in the Karabakh government for the first time in ten years.

But Ghukasian indicated on Monday that there will be no sweeping reshuffle of his administration, promising only “some staff changes” which he said “must not be an end in itself.”
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