By Michael Mainville, AFP
Voters in Nagorno-Karabakh head to the polls on Thursday for a presidential election they hope will help the ethnic Armenian-controlled enclave's bid for independence.
Officials there said the vote was another step toward winning international recognition for the self-declared republic, which broke away from Azerbaijan amid heavy fighting in the early 1990s.
But no country in the world recognizes Karabakh's independence and the international community is ignoring the vote. Azerbaijan has already denounced the election as having "no legal effect whatsoever." Voters like Marusa Sogomonian said that will not stop them from casting their ballot.
"I'll be one of the first in line on Thursday morning," said Sogomonian, a 66-year-old newspaper seller in the local capital Stepanakert. "If we can prove to the world that we can run our country, that we can be a democracy, then we will have our independence."
Backed by their brethren in neighboring Armenia, separatists seized Karabakh and seven surrounding regions from Azerbaijan in a war that claimed thousands of lives and forced nearly one million people on both sides to flee their homes. The region's status remains unresolved despite more than 15 years of negotiations and sporadic clashes continue along its border with other Azerbaijani regions. Heavily armed and supported by Armenia's widespread diaspora, Karabakh's 150,000 people have remained defiant in the face of oil-rich Azerbaijan's vows to regain control of the region, by force if necessary.
In a statement, Azerbaijan's foreign ministry said the election was "aimed at concealing Armenia's policy of annexation and... strengthening the ongoing occupation of Azerbaijani territory. "The separatist regime in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan represents nothing but an illegal structure established by Armenia on the basis of ethnic cleansing of the Azerbaijani population," the statement said.
Five candidates are registered in the race to replace Arkady Ghukasian, who is ineligible to run after two terms as president. Ghukasian is backing the frontrunner, Bako Sahakian, a former head of Karabakh's internal security service who is widely expected to sail to victory.
Analysts said Masis Mayilian, a deputy foreign minister who claims to represent a reformist camp within the government that can reduce the dominant role of the security services in government, is running a distant second. Critics, including Mayilian, have accused the government of orchestrating a pro-Sahakian campaign and using state resources to ensure his victory.
Sahakian brushed aside those concerns, saying he understood that a free and fair election was essential to Karabakh's future. "Elections are vital to a civilized state within the international community," he said. "We have never had a non-free election and this is one of our greatest achievements."
Mayilian, who claims his campaign's internal polls show him in a tight race with Sahakian, said that he hoped Thursday's vote would be conducted fairly.
Still, there are few fundamental differences between the platforms of the various contenders, with all promising to continue the fight for independence and spur economic reform. Surrounded by Azerbaijani forces and linked by only one road with Armenia, Karabakh is mired in poverty, with high unemployment and few industries. Candidates are promising to attract more investment to the region and support new industries, including tourism.
Heavy clouds and fog hung over the region this week, producing a constant drizzle that has left Stepanakert cold and damp. But voters said they would not be deterred by the weather and officials said they expected a high turnout.
"Everyone I know is planning to vote," said Samvel Agabekian, a 53-year-old veteran. "We fought for the right to choose our own leaders, so we take elections seriously."
Polls will open at 0300 GMT on Thursday and close at 1500 GMT. Preliminary results are expected on Friday.