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Voters in Nagorno-Karabakh overwhelmingly backed controversial constitutional changes in a referendum held on Monday, officials in Stepanakert said on Tuesday.

According to official preliminary results of the referendum released by the local Central Election Commission (CEC), more than 87 percent of them voted for the unrecognized republic’s new constitution that allows its president, Bako Sahakian, to extend his rule. The CEC put the voter turnout at 76.5 percent.

The commission chairwoman, Srbuhi Arzumanian, said it has received no formal reports of irregularities from local, Armenian or more than a hundred foreign observers. The latter mostly monitored the vote in a personal capacity.

“Nothing problematic can be said about this referendum,” said Frank Engel, a pro-Armenian member of the European Parliament from Luxembourg.

“I would hope that more actors in the international community take note of the fact that in this part of the South Caucasus people decide freely,” Engel told reporters in Stepanakert.

The foreign observers also included Reiner Morell, Germany’s former ambassador to Armenia. “In my view, it was a fair, normal and democratic referendum,” Morell told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). The vote demonstrated “the effectiveness of statehood” established by the Karabakh Armenians, he said.

As was the case during the previous Karabakh ballots, Azerbaijan has condemned the referendum as illegal. The Azerbaijani government said this week that it will add the non-Armenian observers to its list of foreign nationals who have been declared personae non grata in Azerbaijan because of their trips to Karabakh.

Morell said he is “not at all worried” about being blacklisted by Baku. “I think that a blacklist is not helpful in spreading democracy,” he said.

Nagorno-Karabakh - Reiner Morell, Germany's former ambassador to Armenia, speaks to RFE/RL in Stepanakert, 21Feb2017.

Nagorno-Karabakh - Reiner Morell, Germany's former ambassador to Armenia, speaks to RFE/RL in Stepanakert, 21Feb2017.

The United States, Russia and France -- the three nations trying to broker a solution to the Karabakh conflict -- commented rather cautiously to the referendum last week. In a joint statement , the U.S., Russian and French co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group noted that “the de-facto Nagorno-Karabakh authorities view the use of such a procedure as an effort to organize the public life of their population.”

But they stressed that the referendum results will “in no way prejudge the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh or the outcome of the ongoing negotiations” on a peaceful resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

Armenia, meanwhile, hailed the Karabakh leadership’s handling of the vote on Tuesday. “Once again the people of Artsakh demonstrated that their will to build a democratic society is irreversible despite all the difficulties resulting from the continuing use of force and threats of it, the economic blockade and other hostile actions by Azerbaijan,” Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian said in a statement.

Nalbandian claimed that Baku regularly condemns “democratic processes” in Karabakh because of its own poor human rights record.

The new constitution drafted by Sahakian and backed by most Karabakh parties envisages the Armenian-populated territory’s transition to a presidential system of government. Proponents of this change say a fully presidential system of government will put Karabakh in a better position to cope with the unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan.

Sahakian’s political opponents maintain, however, that the main purpose of the reform is to enable him to stay in power after he completes his second and what was supposed to be final five-year term in September 2017. The previous Karabakh constitution barred him from seeking a third term.

The new constitution overrode that restriction. It will fully come into force after Karabakh’s current parliament dominated by Sahakian’s supporters serves out its term in 2020. Karabakh will be governed by an interim president chosen by the parliament until then. Sahakian will be able to run for president in 2020 and hold the top post for two consecutive terms.

Speaking to journalists on Monday, the Karabakh leader declined to clarify whether he plans to stay in power after September.

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