Authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh have registered no cases of coronavirus so far and are not planning to cancel presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for March 31, a senior official in Stepanakert said on Wednesday.
“If such a decision [to delay the elections] was made there would be an official statement to that effect,” Tigran Abrahamian, a spokesman for a Karabakh task force coordinating measures against coronavirus, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Earlier in the day, the task force urged Karabakh residents to refrain for the next seven days from travelling to Armenia where the number of confirmed coronavirus cases reached 265 the previous night.
The spread of the COVID-19 virus has led the Armenian government to declare a state of emergency and cancel a constitutional referendum that was due to be held on April 5. It has also fuelled calls for the Karabakh polls to be postponed by several months.
Abrahamian stressed that no coronavirus cases have been recorded in Karabakh so far. He said the authorities in Stepanakert have quarantined, as a precautionary measure, more than two dozen people, most of them Karabakh students of Armenian and other foreign universities who have returned home due to the pandemic.
The official also said that all members of Karabakh election commissions will have protective gloves, face masks and hand sanitizers during the March 31 vote. Also, he said, they will give every Karabakh voter a single-use pen for signing registration documents at polling stations.
The idea of delaying the elections is backed by some political forces in Karabakh, notably the opposition National Revival party. Its leader, Hayk Khanumian, argued on Wednesday that the polls are due to be monitored by hundreds of observers from Armenia. He said they would pose a health risk for Karabakh.
Daniel Ioannisian, a Yerevan-based civic activist whose Union of Informed Citizens plans to deploy 100 election observers in Karabakh, sought to allay these fears. He argued that hundreds of people are continuing to travel between Karabakh and Armenia on a daily basis.
“We will measure the temperature of all our observers both in Yerevan and right before their entry into polling stations,” said Ioannisian. “The observers’ physical contacts in Karabakh will be reduced to a minimum, and we already have sufficient quantities of face masks and hand sanitizers for them.”
Observers believe that only three of the 14 presidential candidates stand a chance of succeeding Bako Sahakian, Karabakh’s outgoing president who has been in office since 2007. Those are Karabakh’s Foreign Minister Masis Mayilian, former Prime Minister Arayik Harutiunian and retired army General Vitaly Balasanian.
The Karabakh parliamentary race is also tightly contested, with over 300 candidates representing 12 parties and blocs vying for 32 seats in the local legislature.
Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijani rule in 1991 but has not been formally recognized as an independent state by any country since then. The international community continues to regard the Armenian-populated territory as an integral part of Azerbaijan.
Baku has always condemned elections held in Karabakh as illegitimate. The United States, Russia and France, which have been jointly trying to broker an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace deal, have also criticized them.
In a joint statement issued after the last legislative polls held in Karabakh in 2015, the U.S., Russian and French co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group said: “In the context of a comprehensive settlement of the conflict, we recognize the role of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh in deciding their future. However, none of our three countries, nor any other country, recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent and sovereign state.”