STEPANAKERT, Azerbaijan: The unrecognized region of Nagorny-Karabakh re-elected leader Bako Sahakyan, amid growing tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia over its status, officials said yesterday.
Sahakyan received 66.7 percent of the vote while his main rival, retired Army Gen. Vitaliy Balasanian, got 32.5 percent, according to the preliminary results published on the central election commission’s website.
Turnout was 73.4 percent in Thursday’s vote, it added.
Internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, Nagorny-Karabakh was seized by ethnic Armenians backed by Yerevan in a horrific war after the collapse of the Soviet Union that claimed some 30,000 lives.
With its defense budget boosted from revenues from energy exports, Azerbaijan has repeatedly threatened to retake the region and the election took place after a surge in deadly shooting incidents across the line of contact.
“By holding free and fair elections, we have demonstrated to the outside world that we are a democracy while Azerbaijan continues to be an authoritarian state,” Sahakyan’s spokesman, David Babaian, told AFP.
Azerbaijan has denounced the polls as “illegal.”
“The ‘presidential elections’ are illegal and they negatively affect the process of negotiations,” Azerbaijan’s presidency spokesman Ali Gasanov said in a statement.
Fatal exchanges of fire across the line of contact that marks the 1994 cease-fire and at the border between the two Caucasus countries are still a frequent occurrence while the forests of Karabakh are littered with death-trap land mines from the war.
In the latest incident that marked the atmosphere of growing tensions between the two Caucasus countries, Azerbaijan’s defense ministry said an officer was killed on Friday by an Armenian sniper.
“Senior Lt. of the Azerbaijani army Jafar Jafarov has been killed by an Armenian sniper’s shot in the cease-fire violation near Alibeyli village of Azerbaijan’s Tovuz district,” the ministry said in a statement.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which coordinates internationally mediated peace talks on Karabakh, said the elections would not influence future decisions on Karabakh’s political status.
The vote can “in no way prejudge the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh or the outcome of the ongoing negotiations to bring a lasting and peaceful settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” Ambassadors of France, Russia, and the United States to the OSCE said in a statement on Friday.
The three countries co-chair the OSCE Minsk Group, which mediates peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the 1994 cease-fire.
The ambassadors said that .”..none of their three countries, nor any other country, recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent and sovereign state.”
European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton warned in a statement on Wednesday that the EU would not recognize the elections as legitimate.
She called on the parties “to step up their efforts to find a negotiated solution of the conflict.”
Now almost exclusively populated by Armenians, the region calls itself the Nagorny-Karabakh Republic but its independence is not even recognized by Yerevan.
Analysts say there is still no meaningful international effort to settle the conflict and domestic issues in the two countries could tip the dispute into a full-blown conflict.