Residents of Nagorno-Karabakh went to the polls on Monday in a referendum on controversial constitutional changes that would allow the unrecognized republic’s current president, Bako Sahakian, to extend his rule.
The new constitution drafted by Sahakian’s administration and backed by most local political parties would abolish the post of Karabakh’s prime minister and give more powers to the president. Proponents of this change say a fully presidential system of government would put the Armenian-populated territory in a better position to cope with the unresolved conflict with Azerbaijan.
Sahakian’s political opponents maintain, however, that the main purpose of the new constitution is 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 current Karabakh constitution bars him from seeking a third term.
The new constitution put on the referendum would essentially abolish this restriction. It would fully come into force after Karabakh’s current legislature dominated by Sahakian’s supporters serves out its term in 2020. Karabakh would be governed by an interim president chosen by the parliament until then. Sahakian would be able to run for president in 2020 and hold the unrecognized republic’s top post for two consecutive terms.
Sahakian dismissed as “dishonest” the opposition criticism of the constitutional after voting at a polling station in Stepanakert. But he declined to clarify whether he would indeed like to stay in power in the years to come.
“We have agreed with representatives of our political forces that when the right moment to talk about our future comes we will announce our decisions at that time,” Sahakian told reporters.
According to the Central Election Commission (CEC) in Stepanakert, nearly half of Karabakh’s 103,000 or so eligible voters cast ballots at 280 polling stations across the territory as of 2 p.m. local time.
As was the case during the previous Karabakh ballots, Azerbaijan has condemned the referendum as illegal. Azerbaijani Deputy Prime Minister Ali Hasanov charged last week that the vote is a “provocation” organized by Armenia. Armenian officials brushed aside the criticism.
The United States, Russia and France -- the three nations trying to broker a solution to the Karabakh conflict -- have reacted more cautiously to the vote. In a joint statement released on Friday, the U.S., Russian and French co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group said the referendum results will “in no way prejudge the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh or the outcome of the ongoing negotiations” between the conflicting sides.
The co-chairs 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 also stressed that “no countries, including Armenia and Azerbaijan, recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent and sovereign state.”
The referendum date was clearly timed to coincide with the 29th anniversary of the start of a popular movement for Karabakh’s unification with Armenia.