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Karabakh’s Presidential Runoff Still On Despite First Coronavirus Case


Nagorno-Karabakh -- A polling station in Stepanakert, March 31, 2020.

Authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh seem determined to hold the second round of a presidential election after reporting the first case of coronavirus on Tuesday.

The infected person is a 63-year-old woman from Mirik, a small village more than 80 kilometers south of Stepanakert. Karabakh officials say that she was hospitalized on April 2 several days after returning from Armenia. According to them, all village residents were put in quarantine or told to self-isolate after she tested positive for coronavirus.

A Karabakh task force coordinating measures against the coronavirus confirmed on Wednesday that the woman participated in the first round of voting held on March 31. But it downplayed this fact, saying that just like all other voters she wore a protective mask and gloves and received a single-use pen at a local polling station.

The March 31 vote went ahead despite serious concerns about the spread of coronavirus in Karabakh.

Its official results showed Ara Harutiunian, a wealthy businessman and former prime minister, winning over 49 percent of the vote and narrowly falling short of an outright victory. Another major candidate, Masis Mayilian, finished second with 26.4 percent. The two men should thus face each other in a runoff vote scheduled for April 14.

Citing the coronavirus pandemic, Mayilian on Sunday urged supporters to boycott the vote. But he stopped short of withdrawing from the presidential race.

Even after reporting the first coronavirus case, the authorities in Stepanakert gave no indications that the second round will be postponed. The chairwoman of the local Central Election Commission (CEC), Srbuhi Arzumanian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Wednesday that they are planning to take “additional safety measures” on April 14.

Harutiunian signaled support for this stance. “I also understand the authorities’ concerns,” said Vahram Poghosian, a spokesman for the election frontrunner. “Fortunately, it must be noted that the situation is still manageable.”

Karabakh Armenians also elected on March 31 their new parliament. Harutiunian’s Free Fatherland party won more than 40 percent of those votes and will control 16 of the 33 parliament seats.

The United Homeland party of Samvel Babayan, a former Karabakh army commander, will be the second largest parliamentary force with 9 seats. Three other political groups will also be represented in the local legislature.

Azerbaijan strongly condemned the Karabakh elections, saying that they run counter to Azerbaijani and international law. It also said that that the Armenian-populated territory, which broke away from Azerbaijani rule in 1991, is governed by an “illegal regime installed by Armenia.”

U.S., Russian and French diplomats co-heading the OSCE Minsk Group stressed, for their part, that Karabakh is not recognized as an independent state by the international community and that “the so-called general elections” cannot predetermine the outcome of Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks mediated by them.

By contrast, Armenia defended the holding of the elections. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian described the polls as democratic and said they could facilitate a resolution of the Karabakh conflict.

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