Businessman Ara Harutiunian was sworn in as Nagorno-Karabakh’s new president on Thursday more than one month after winning a presidential election condemned by Azerbaijan.
Harutiunian described Karabakh and Armenia as “inseparable parts of a united national homeland” when he spoke during the inauguration ceremony held in the town of Shushi and attended by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.
“Artsakh (Karabakh) is Armenia. Period!” he declared, echoing a controversial statement made by Pashinian in Stepanakert last August.
Harutiunian served as Karabakh’s prime minister from 2007-2017. He has extensive business interests in the region which had broken away from Azerbaijan in 1991.
The 46-year-old cruised to a comfortable victory in the second round of the presidential ballot held on April 14 amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus in Karabakh. His main challenger, outgoing Foreign Minister Masis Mayilian, had urged supporters to boycott it because of those concerns.
Mayilian said after the runoff that the official vote results “have no significance whatsoever” for his political team. Nevertheless, he chose to attend Harutiunian’s inauguration.
The first round of voting was held on March 31. Karabakh Armenians also elected their new parliament on that day. Harutiunian’s Free Fatherland bloc won 16 of the 33 parliament seats, falling just short of a parliamentary majority.
Four other political groups will also be represented in the new Karabakh legislature. A Harutiunian ally, Artur Tovmasian, was elected its speaker earlier on Thursday.
Azerbaijan strongly condemned the Karabakh polls, saying that they run counter to Azerbaijani and international law. It also said that that Karabakh 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. It cited a 1992 OSCE document saying that “elected representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh” should also participate in the peace process.
The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry also condemned the inauguration ceremony and Pashinian’s participation in it. “The war is not yet over, and Azerbaijan reserves the right to restore its territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders by all necessary means,” it said in a statement released on Wednesday.
Anna Naghdalian, the Armenian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, rejected Baku’s “war threats,” saying that they cannot influence the Armenian position on the unresolved conflict and “democratic processes taking place in Artsakh.”
On Monday, the Azerbaijani military began five-day exercises which it said will involve around 10,000 soldiers, hundreds of tanks and artillery systems, and dozens of warplanes and helicopters. The Armenian Defense Ministry warned it against trying to “move military hardware and personnel close to the Armenian border or the Line of Contact with Nagorno-Karabakh.”