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Azerbaijan/Armenia: Nagorno-Karabakh To Hold Local Ballot

Despite strong criticism from the Council of Europe, voters in the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh will go to the polls tomorrow to renew their representatives in self-government bodies. The Council warns that the election could endanger peace talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed enclave.

Prague, 4 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Ignoring international pleas, the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh republic will hold local elections tomorrow that Azerbaijan describes as illegal.

For the second time since the predominantly ethnic-Armenian region declared independence 10 years ago, voters are set to renew their representatives to city halls and other local bodies. The Karabakh Central Electoral Commission said last month that more than 370 candidates would run for some 220 seats.

This is not the first time elections are being held in the disputed enclave. Parliamentary and presidential polls have been organized twice since Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan, and local elections were already held three years ago. Each poll has triggered a wave of protests in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, and provoked criticism from the international community.

Tomorrow's elections are the first to be held in the enclave since Armenia and Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe in January.

Last month (24 August), the 43-nation pan-European body called on Nagorno-Karabakh's de facto authorities to refrain from staging what it described as "one-sided local self-government elections."

In a communique released in Strasbourg, Liechtenstein's Foreign Minister Ernst Walch -- who chairs the council's Committee of Ministers -- stated that "these so-called 'elections' cannot be legitimate."

Walch and two other signatories (Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly President Lord Russell-Johnston and Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer) also warned that the elections would be seen as "undermining efforts to achieve an early and comprehensive settlement of the conflict by peaceful means."

When it agreed to admit Armenia and Azerbaijan as its 42nd and 43rd members, the Council of Europe hoped that the decision would help both countries improve their democratic standards and speed up a peaceful resolution of their 13-year-old territorial dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Yerevan and Baku have been in conflict since the enclave first attempted to secede from Azerbaijan in 1988. That move ignited domestic troubles and a full-scale war that killed more than 30,000 people and created hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Despite a truce signed in 1994, scores of people are killed each year along the front line that separates Azerbaijani territories occupied by ethnic Armenian troops from the rest of the country.

Both Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Heidar Aliev, have said they are committed to reaching a peaceful solution before their mandates expire in 2003.

Yet, despite mediation efforts by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), little progress has been achieved in bringing the two sides closer to a comprehensive agreement. A recent upsurge of rhetoric on both sides is renewing fears that prospects for a quick resolution might be fading.

On 2 September, the speaker of the Azerbaijani parliament (Milli Meclis), Murtuza Aleskerov, issued a statement saying that the upcoming Karabakh elections violate the civic rights of the 50,000 or so ethnic Azerbaijanis who have been forced out of their Karabakh homeland by the conflict.

Aleskerov also said the ballot, which he describes as an attempt to legitimize the occupation of Azerbaijani territories by ethnic Armenian troops, will negatively affect the ongoing peace process.

Novruz Mamedov heads the foreign relations department in President Aliev's administration. In comments to RFE/RL, he downplayed the importance of the local Karabakh elections, saying any impact they might have would be more psychological than concrete:

"In principle, [these elections] could have a psychological effect on the peace process. But since the Armenian republic is involved in the conflict, and since it is the Armenian leadership which is conducting peace negotiations, I think that these so-called elections will not have any particular negative impact on the peace process."

In a telephone interview from Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Karabakh Foreign Minister Naira Melkumian also dismissed fears that the poll could seriously affect peace talks. She also accused the Council of Europe of bias:

"We, of course, carefully examined the statement issued by the Council of Europe, and we were both disappointed and surprised because, to a certain extent, we discerned in it the expression of double standards if we compare with the situation that we think prevails in Azerbaijan. More than half a million Armenians have left Azerbaijan [since the beginning of the war]. In Baku, for example, there were 300,000 Armenian residents. That means that local elections in Azerbaijan have been held in the absence of this Armenian minority. Therefore they, too, should be considered as not being entirely legitimate."

Melkumian also said that, unlike the Council of Europe, the Karabakh leadership believes that the absence of the region's large non-ethnic Armenian minority should not serve as a reason to question the legitimacy of the poll:

"Regardless of their level, we consider that all of Karabakh's power organs are legitimate. Twenty-five percent of the population have left Karabakh [since the beginning of the war]. But in any case, if we speak in terms of attendance to the polls, this cannot exert a decisive influence on the outcome of the election."

In comments published on 1 September in the Armenian "Azg" daily, the head of the Armenian delegation to the Council of Europe, Hovanes Hovanisian, held a similar stance. Hovanisian, who chairs the Armenian parliament's Foreign Relations Committee, said the fact that ethnic Armenians account for 75 percent of the Karabakh population before the war is enough to legitimize the upcoming election.

Also on 1 September, Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian tried to downplay the impact of the Council of Europe's harsh statement, saying that the organization is mainly concerned about a possible negative impact on the Karabakh peace process.

Oskanian's spokeswoman, Dzyunik Agadzhanian, has said that the election could only promote a settlement of the conflict by strengthening the legitimacy of Karabakh self-government bodies.

Fears that the ballot will seriously hinder the peace process are also being dismissed by the United States which, along with Russia and France, co-chairs the so-called Minsk Group of nations tasked by the OSCE to mediate talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Speaking to reporters on 30 August, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher refrained from criticizing the Karabakh authorities:

"We don't recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as any kind of independent country. To date, we think the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh is a matter that needs to be negotiated through the Minsk process. We strongly support it and have actively been involved in that process. So we don't really think that these elections affect that process."

Pressed to comment on the legitimacy of the poll, Boucher declined to elaborate. As for the Minsk Group's other two co-chairmen -- Russia and France -- they have so far refrained from any public statements.