By Karine Kalantarian in Stepanakert and Emil Danielyan
Nagorno-Karabakh’s first-ever constitution declaring the Armenian-populated territory an independent state was overwhelmingly approved by voters in a weekend referendum criticized by the international community, officials in Stepanakert said on Monday.
According to preliminary results of the vote released by the local Central Election Commission, almost 99 percent of over residents who went to the polls on Sunday voted for the constitution drafted by the ethnic Armenian leadership of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). The CEC put the voter turnout at 87 percent.
To pass, the basic law needed the backing of at least one third of the region’s 90,000 eligible voters. The authorities in Stepanakert said its passage reaffirmed Karabakh’s de facto secession from Soviet Azerbaijan in the late 1980s.
“I am confident that the adopted document will reinforce Nagorno-Karabakh statehood and deepen democratization processes going on here,” Arkady Ghukasian, the NKR president, told reporters in the Karabakh capital.
The Karabakh leadership went ahead with the vote despite the ongoing peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan on an internationally backed peace deal that would delay agreement on the disputed region’s status until the final stage of the peace process. Ghukasian has repeatedly voiced misgivings about the proposed formula.
In Yerevan, President Robert Kocharian was quick to welcome the referendum outcome, saying that the Karabakh Armenians “reaffirmed their resolve to live in freedom.” “This referendum, which met the highest democratic standards, was another milestone in the establishment of Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence,” Kocharian said in a congratulatory message sent to Stepanakert.
Predictably, Azerbaijan condemned the holding of the vote. “That referendum is a regular farce,” Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov was quoted by Day.az as saying.
The condemnation was echoed by the governments of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine last week. In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of the four ex-Soviet states making up the GUAM grouping said the vote will undermine international efforts to resolve the Karabakh conflict.
Armenia angrily rejected the criticism, with Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian accusing Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine of “meddling into an issue which does not concern them.” He said the NKR has built a “lawful, well-regulated internal governance system” and therefore has a legitimate right for a basic law.
The Azerbaijani position on the issue was also effectively backed by the European Union and the Council of Europe. "The EU recalls that it does not recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. It recognizes neither the 'referendum' nor its outcome," the 25-nation bloc said in a statement.
“This Sunday's vote organized by the 'de facto' authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh cannot have any legal validity,” Terry Davis, secretary general of the Council of Europe, said separately from Strasbourg. “It will not be recognized by the international community and is therefore of no consequence.”
Davis went on to play down the Karabakh Armenians’ role in the peace process, saying that the “main responsibility for the settlement is with the political leadership of Armenia and Azerbaijan.”
French, Russian and U.S. mediators co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group also dismissed the ballot. “Conducting such a referendum now, thus preempting the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh, rather than forging a compromise is particularly unhelpful at a moment when the OSCE Minsk Group-mediated negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan appear to be on a constructive path,” read a joint statement issued by them.
The mediators stressed at the same time that the Karabakh vote “will have no negative effect on emerging prospects for an agreement between the sides on basic principles for the settlement of the conflict.”