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Voters in Nagorno-Karabakh went to the polls on Thursday in a presidential election strongly condemned by Azerbaijan but portrayed by Armenia as another manifestation of the democratic process in the disputed territory.

Karabakh’s incumbent president, Bako Sahakian, was seeking to win a second five-year term in office in a contest with two other presidential candidates, including a retired army general who played a major role in the 1991-1994 Armenian-Azerbaijani war.

Sahakian sounded confident about his victory after casting a ballot at a polling station in Stepanakert. “I have voted for building a strong, independent and united state,” he told reporters. “My first step will be to continue what I have started with my partners. We expect to see a prosperous and beautiful Artsakh in five years.”

Nagorno-Karabakh - A foreign observer at a polling station in Stepanakert, 19Jul2012.

Nagorno-Karabakh - A foreign observer at a polling station in Stepanakert, 19Jul2012.

Sahakian’s main challenger, General Vitali Balasanian, voted in the eastern Karabakh town of Askeran. Balasanian said that if elected will strive for international recognition of Karabakh’s de facto secession from Azerbaijan and ensure faster economic development.

“If I’m not elected, the struggle will continue,” he told journalists. “We have already achieved our minimum objectives, and Karabakh will experience a rebirth. And I would definitely declare my being in opposition.”

Karabakh’s three main political parties holding seats in the local parliament are represented in Sahakian’s government. Not surprisingly, they have endorsed his reelection bid.

Balasanian also stressed the importance of ensuring that the election is “free, fair and transparent.” His campaign headquarters is expected to evaluate the election conduct of the vote on Friday.

The vote was monitored by at least 110 observers from Armenia, other former Soviet republics and Western countries. The non-Armenian observers represented non-governmental organizations or acted in a personal capacity.

Predictably, Azerbaijan condemned the vote, saying that elections held in Karabakh cannot be deemed legitimate before the withdrawal of “Armenian occupation forces from the seized territories” and the return of Karabakh’s former Azerbaijani minority.

Nagorno-Karabakh - A voter at a polling station in Stepanakert, 19Jul2012.

Nagorno-Karabakh - A voter at a polling station in Stepanakert, 19Jul2012.

“The so-called elections are held with the aim of concealing Armenia’s policy of annexing Azerbaijan’s occupied territories,” the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday. News reports also quoted a ministry spokesman as saying that all foreigners monitoring the Karabakh vote will be declared personae non gratae.

The European Union also criticized the election in a special statement issued by its foreign policy chief, Catherine Asthon. “I would like to reiterate that the European Union does not recognize the constitutional and legal framework in which [the election] will be held,” Ashton said. “These 'elections' should not prejudice the determination of the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh in the negotiated general framework of the peaceful settlement of the conflict.”

Incidentally, three of the foreign election observers who travelled to Karabakh are members of the European Parliament, the EU’s legislative body.

Meanwhile, official Yerevan brushed aside the Azerbaijani criticism, with Deputy Foreign Minister Shavarsh Kocharian attributing it to the fact that Karabakh “has succeeded as a democratic state.” “This is what scares the hereditary authoritarian regime in Azerbaijan,” Kocharian said, according to Regnum.
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