Azerbaijan’s separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh went to the polls yesterday (3 May) to elect a new parliament in a vote denounced as illegitimate by Baku and the West.
For over two decades, the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute over the territory — which no country recognises as independent — has been a major source of tension in the strategic South Caucasus region wedged between Iran, Russia and Turkey (see background).
The dispute is rooted in a bloody war in the early 1990s, following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Yerevan-backed ethnic Armenian separatists seized control of Karabakh and several other regions of Azerbaijan during the conflict that left some 30,000 dead.
While Yerevan does not recognise Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence claim, Armenia and rebel leaders pledged the elections would be free and fair, insisting that they were being held in line with international standards.
“Holding elections in Nagorno-Karabakh proves the high level of democracy there,” Armenian foreign ministry spokesman Tigran Balayan told AFP.
The elections “will be another step towards strengthening the democratic traditions and values in our country,” the rebel region’s foreign minister Karen Mirzoyan told AFP ahead of the vote.
He said that international mediators at peace talks “have since 1992 taken the position that Karabakh’s democratically elected representatives must be party to the negotiations on the conflict’s peaceful settlement”.
But oil-rich Azerbaijan, which has threatened to retake the region by force, condemned the election as illegal.
“The so-called ‘elections’ in Armenian-occupied Karabakh have no legal force, they contradict Azerbaijan’s constitution and international law,” Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry spokesman Hikmat Hajiyev told AFP.
“Armenia stages a provocation called ‘elections’ which harms the ongoing negotiations.”
‘We will not accept results’
The European Union and the United States also weighed in this week on the Karabakh poll.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said through a spokesperson on Friday that “the European Union does not recognise the constitutional and legal framework” within which the elections were to be held.
Jeff Rathke, the US State Department’s acting spokesman, told journalists on Friday that “The United States does not recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent sovereign state, and accordingly, we will not accept the results of the elections on 3 May.”
Karabakh’s ethnic-Azerbaijani community — which before the war made up around 25% of the population — was entirely driven out.
The enclave’s 149,000-strong population is now mainly ethnic Armenian. Despite years of negotiations, the two sides have not signed a final peace deal, with Karabakh internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.
Baku, whose military spending exceeds Armenia’s entire state budget, has threatened to take back the territories by force if negotiations fail.
Armenia, backed militarily by Russia, says it could crush any offensive.
Threatening a shaky truce, clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces intensified again this year following an unprecedented spiral of violence in 2014.
Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the so-called frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space. It is a landlocked region in the Southern Caucasus, de jure on the territory of Azerbaijan, but de facto governed by the Armenian-backed breakaway government of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
An armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan took place between 1988 and 1994 over Nagorno-Karabakh. A Russian-brokered cease-fire was signed in May 1994.
In August 2008, the US, France and Russia began to negotiate a full settlement of the conflict, proposing a referendum on the status of the territory. The effort culminated in the signature in Moscow by Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan and his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev of an agreement to hold talks on a political settlement.