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Voters in Karabakh went to the polls on Sunday to elect their fifth parliament since the unrecognized Armenian republic broke free from Azerbaijan’s control in the early 1990s. More than 70 percent of some 95,000 eligible voters turned out to vote in the elections, according to Karabakh’s central election commission.

More than 50 international observers and 30 international media had turned to the Karabakh authorities for monitoring or covering the elections in which four political parties with a total of 82 candidates on their slates were vying for 17 seats in parliament. The other seats in the 33-seat body were contested by 44 candidates in single-mandate constituencies. The legislature in Karabakh is elected for a five-year term.

The preliminary results published by the Karabakh Central Election Commission (CEC) on Monday showed Karabakh Prime Minister Ara Harutiunian’s Free Fatherland party as leading the vote with some 46 percent. Parliament speaker Ashot Ghulian’s Democratic Party of Artsakh and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) have garnered about 29 and 20 percent of the vote, respectively. The Communist Party has failed to clear the six-percent hurdle, which is required under Karabakh's election laws to enter the legislature. The results of the vote in single-mandate constituencies are expected to be published later.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has condemned the elections in Karabakh, which it considers to be its territory. Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission described the vote as a “new election farce”.

Karabakh, populated mainly by ethnic Armenians, broke away from Azerbaijan following a three-year war that left some 30,000 dead. A Russia-brokered ceasefire stopped the bloodshed in 1994. The current negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan conducted with the mediation of the United States, France and Russia as part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group have not yet brought about a peace agreement.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton late last week called the planned elections in Karabakh illegal and said the event “should not prejudice the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”

Russia, meanwhile, was less categorical in its assessments of the impact of elections in Karabakh on the settlement prospects. “In Moscow we do not think that the course of the Karabakh peace process could depend on the holding of elections in Karabakh,” Andrei Nesterenko, a Russian Foreign Ministry official representative, said on Monday.

“Russia supports Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity as well as other fundamental principles of international law,” he added. “As is known, we do not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state. We believe the future status of Karabakh must be determined without the use of force and within the framework of the Minsk Group, as a result of political negotiations involving all parties.”

Still, officials in Karabakh said the polls demonstrated the unrecognized republic’s commitment to democracy.

“It is a pleasure to live in a country that supports democratic values. And democracy is a value for us, along with independence and sovereignty,” said Karabakh leader Bako Sahakian after casting his vote on Sunday.

“Together with our people the [newly elected] National Assembly should be working towards achieving great successes in Karabakh’s recognition,” he added.

Armenia has also hailed the election in Karabakh as a step showing its government’s and people’s commitment to strengthening democracy and rule of law.

In comments provided to Armenia’s state-run Armenpress news agency Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian described recognition of the right of Nagorno-Karabakh’s people to decide their fate as “central” to the proposals of the international mediators on the basis of which the current negotiations are conducted.

“In the matter of settling the Karabakh problem the international community should be primarily interested in dealing with authorities elected by the people of Karabakh,” stressed Nalbandian, adding that with the latest elections “the citizens of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic once again have proved their resolve to express their will to live freely and independently.”

The Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, meanwhile, issued a joint statement on Monday in which they “took note that so-called parliamentary elections took place in Nagorno-Karabakh on May 23, 2010.”

“Although the Co-Chairs understand the need for the de facto authorities in NK to try to organize democratically the public life of their population with such a procedure, they underscore again that Nagorno-Karabakh is not recognized as an independent and sovereign state by any of their three countries, nor by any other country, including Armenia. The Co-Chairs consider that this procedure should not preempt the determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh in the broader framework of the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” the U.S., French and Russian co-heads of the group said.
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