By Hrant Aleksanian in Stepanakert
Officials in Nagorno-Karabakh were tabulating on Monday the results of weekend municipal elections angrily denounced by Azerbaijan but touted by the leadership of the Armenian-populated territory as a manifestation of its commitment to democracy.
According to the Central Election Commission (CEC) of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, 61 percent of some 85,000 eligible voters cast their ballots on Sunday to choose the heads of administrations and legislative councils in about 200 local towns and villages.
The lowest voter turnout was registered in the election of the capital Stepanakert’s mayor, the most closely watched race. It also produced the biggest surprise, with the candidate backed by the authorities failing to win in the first round of voting. Preliminary official figures showed the candidate, Pavel Najarian, polling 42.8 percent of the vote and falling short of the 50-percent-plus-one threshold for outright victory.
His main challenger, Eduard Aghabekian, got 34.5 percent of votes and is expected to be endorsed by the three other, defeated candidates for the run-off vote scheduled for August 22. He is also implicitly backed by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), an influential party represented in Armenia’s and Karabakh’s governments. Some local observers believe that this puts Aghabekian in a strong position to become Stepanakert mayor.
A former military medic, Aghabekian heads the social affairs committee of Karabakh’s parliament and is in opposition to President Arkady Ghukasian. Najarian, on the other hand, enjoys the backing of Ghukasian’s Democratic Artsakh Union (ZhAM) party.
The ZhAM directly controls the majority of Karabakh communities and its grip on the local governments was not seriously threatened in areas outside Stepanakert. The CEC is due to release vote results for the whole of the NKR later this week. Its chairman, Sergei Davtian, said the elections can already be considered a success.
“The Central Election Commission has achieved its goal,” he told RFE/RL. “These elections were better organized and more interesting than the previous ones.”
Davtian added that the CEC did not receive any reports of irregularities from candidates as of late afternoon. However, it is expected that some candidates will complain about material and moral government support given to their pro-establishment rivals during the election campaign.
Sunday’s vote provoked an angry reaction from Azerbaijan which insists that no elections held in Karabakh can be considered legitimate until the restoration of its sovereignty over the disputed region. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev on Thursday again vowed to bring in back under Baku’s control.
The outgoing secretary general of the Council of Europe, Walter Schwimmer, similarly criticized the holding of the polls last week, saying that such “one-sided actions are counter-productive” before the resolution of the Karabakh conflict.
The criticisms were brushed by the Karabakh Armenians. “We don't think that the international community and the European organizations in particular would be interested in the absence of government in Nagorno-Karabakh,” they said in a statement on Friday.
Armenia, for its part, lashed out at Azerbaijan, accusing it of exploiting the polls as well as the ongoing military exercise by Karabakh Armenian forces to “divert attention from its unwillingness to negotiate a lasting peace.” Official Stepanakert has said that the ten-day exercise, which began last Tuesday, will test the combat-readiness of the NKR Defense Army in “defensive and counter-offensive operations.”
In a separate development, the Karabakh authorities announced on Sunday the capture of an Azerbaijani soldier who reportedly tried to cross into Armenian-controlled territory through the heavily militarized frontline east of Karabakh. They said they informed the International
Committee of the Red Cross and the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe about the detention of the soldier identified as Anad Samedov. No further circumstances of Samedov’s capture were reported.
(Photolur photo: Pavel Najarian, left, and Eduard Aghabekian.)