The United States, Russia and France have reacted cautiously to Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Nagorno-Karabakh, saying that they cannot predetermine the outcome of Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks mediated by them.
In a joint statement released late on Thursday, the U.S., Russian and French diplomats co-heading the OSCE Minsk Group stopped short of explicitly calling the vote illegal.
“In the context of a comprehensive settlement of the conflict, we recognize the role of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh in deciding their future,” they said. “However, none of our three countries, nor any other country, recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent and sovereign state.”
“Accordingly, we do not accept the results of these ‘elections’ as affecting the legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh, and stress that they in no way prejudge the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh or the outcome of the ongoing negotiations to bring a lasting and peaceful settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” added their statement.
The mediators likewise acknowledge the need for “the de facto authorities” in Stepanakert to “organize democratically the public life of their population with such a procedure” when they jointly commented on Karabakh’s last presidential election held in 2012.
Azerbaijan strongly condemned the 2012 ballot and all other elections held in Karabakh in the past. Azerbaijani officials have made similar statements with regard to Sunday’s elections.
The upcoming Karabakh vote is tightly contested, with about 220 candidates mostly representing seven political parties vying for 33 seats in the Karabakh legislature. The outgoing parliament is controlled by a three-party coalition allied to Bako Sahakian, the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s president. Sahakian is not affiliated with any party.
The three parties are challenged by four other local political groups. One of them is led Vitaly Balasanian, a retired army general who was Sahakian’s main challenger in 2012.
Sunday’s polls are expected to be monitored by about 100 foreign observers acting in their personal capacity or as representatives of non-governmental organizations. They include a team of French observers led by Francois Rochebloine, a pro-Armenian member of France’s parliament. The delegation met with Sahakian in Stepanakert on Thursday.
The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry warned on Friday that Baku will not only ban those foreign monitors from visiting Azerbaijan but could also launch criminal proceedings against them.
The Minsk Group co-chairs issued the statement after holding separate talks with Paris with the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan. They said they stressed to both men the importance of another meeting of the Armenian-Azerbaijani presidents which they hope will take place later this year.
“The Ministers agreed to meet each other, together with the Co-Chairs, to shape the agenda for the Presidents’ discussion, and welcomed an upcoming visit to the region by the Co-Chairs,” read their statement.
Presidents Serzh Sarkisian and Ilham Aliyev most recently met in Paris in October. Both leaders gave positive assessments of that summit which was aimed at kick-starting the Karabakh peace process.
However, tensions in the conflict zone were reignited in November by the shooting down by Azerbaijani forces of an Armenian combat helicopter near Karabakh. Also, there was a renewed upsurge in deadly truce violations in the conflict in the first quarter of this year. The mediating troika implicitly blamed Azerbaijan for the escalation in late January.
According to the Armenian Foreign Ministry, Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian told the co-chairs on Wednesday that Baku is ignoring their calls for bolstering the ceasefire regime. Nalbandian also complained about continuing bellicose statements made by Azerbaijani leaders.
In a speech in March, Aliyev again declared that Azerbaijan will eventually gain control over not only Karabakh but also Yerevan and other “historic Azerbaijani lands” in Armenia.
James Warlick, the U.S. co-chair, described the talks with Nalbandian as “productive and positive.” “Armenia is open to opportunities for [Karabakh] peace,” he wrote on Twitter.
“With [Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar] Mammadyarov, we spoke about key issues to be discussed between the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Warlick said in a separate tweet.
Mammadyarov’s office did not issue statements on the Paris meeting.