Residents of Nagorno-Karabakh went to the polls on Tuesday in presidential and parliamentary elections strongly condemned by Azerbaijan.
The presidential ballot was contested by 14 candidates. Only three of them were believed to stand a chance of succeeding Bako Sahakian, Karabakh’s outgoing president who has been in office since 2007. Those are Sahakian’s former prime minister and foreign minister, Arayik Harutiunian and Masis Mayilian, and retired army General Vitaly Balasanian.
None of them was openly endorsed by Sahakian or Armenia’s government during election campaign.
The parliamentary race was also tightly contested, with 12 parties and blocs vying for 33 seats in the local legislature. Most of their top leaders also ran for president.
The elections went ahead despite serious concerns about the spread of coronavirus in Karabakh. The authorities in Stepanakert, which have recorded no coronavirus cases so far, dismissed calls for their postponement made by several presidential candidates and prominent public figures in Armenia. They said that precautionary measures taken by them will minimize health risks.
Critics are especially worried about the arrival of hundreds of election observers from Armenia where the number coronavirus cases surpassed 500 on Tuesday morning. The authorities counter that the observers as well as Armenian journalists underwent COVID-19 tests just before travelling to Karabakh. All other people from Armenia were temporarily banned last week from entering Karabakh.
Many ordinary Karabakh Armenians also seemed unfazed by the coronavirus threat, flocking to polling stations disinfected throughout the day. Each voter was handed a face mask, gloves and a single-use pen while entering them. Election officials also wore protective masks and gloves.
With only one or two voters at a time allowed into most of the 281 polling sites across Karabakh, lines formed outside many of them already in the morning. According to the Central Election Commission, about half of the Armenian-populated territory’s 104,000 eligible voters cast ballots as of 2 p.m.
“Turnout is very high,” said Kajik Harutiunian, the chairman of a precinct election commission in Stepanakert.
“People started queuing up at 8 a.m.,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “In terms of the numbers, there have been no such elections before.”
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 territory as an integral part of Azerbaijan.
Baku has always condemned elections held in Karabakh as illegitimate. Its reaction to the latest polls was just as negative.
In a statement released on Tuesday, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said they run counter to Azerbaijani and international law. “The illegal regime installed by Armenia in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan is the product of aggression, ethnic cleansing and racial discrimination, and it is led and controlled by Armenia,” said the statement.
U.S., Russian and French mediators co-heading the OSCE Minsk Group said, meanwhile, that they “have taken note of the so-called general elections” and “recognize the role of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh in deciding its future” as part of a future resolution of the Karabakh conflict.
“The Co-Chairs note, however, that Nagorno-Karabakh is not recognized as an independent and sovereign state by any of the Co-Chair countries or any other country,” they said in a joint statement. “Accordingly, the Co-Chairs do not accept the results of these ‘elections’ as affecting the legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh and stress that the results 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.”
The mediators, who regularly visit Stepanakert and meet with Karabakh’s leaders during their tours of the conflict zone, had issued similar statements on past Karabakh elections.
The European Union also reacted to the Karabakh elections, saying that it “does not recognize the constitutional and legal framework within which they are being held.” “This event cannot prejudice the determination of the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh or the outcome of the ongoing negotiation process,” said a spokesman for the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.
Predictably, Armenia defended the holding of the elections. It argued that OSCE member states had adopted in 1992 a document saying that “elected representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh” should also participate in Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks. “Elections must be held to have elected representatives,” read an Armenian Foreign Ministry statement.