De-facto authorities in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh are holding presidential and parliamentary elections amid international criticism and despite a coronavirus pandemic.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a region within Azerbaijan that was seized by Armenian-backed separatists who declared independence amid a 1988-1994 conflict that killed at least 30,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.
Following a Russia-brokered fragile truce in 1994, the region has been under the control of ethnic-Armenian forces that Azerbaijan says include troops supplied by Armenia. The region's claim to independence has not been recognized by any country.
Periodic skirmishes have been taking place in the region. On March 30, Armenia accused Baku of violating the fragile cease-fire, saying that two Armenian soldiers and one civilian were wounded near the northeastern border with Azerbaijan.
Russia, the United States, and France are the co-chairs of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which acts as a mediator in resolving the crisis. The group has been struggling for years to mediate a solution to the situation.
Fourteen candidates are vying for the job of incumbent leader Bako Sahakian, who is not allowed to seek reelection under local law. Twelve political parties and alliances are seeking mandates in Nagorno-Karabakh’s 33-seat National Assembly.
In a sternly worded statement, the European Union reminded Karabakh leaders on March 31 that it does not recognized their entity and warned that the move could hamper the progress of international negotiations on resolving the conflict.
“In view of the so-called 'presidential and parliamentary elections' in Nagorno-Karabakh on 31 March 2020, the European Union reiterates that it does not recognize the constitutional and legal framework within which they are being held," EU spokesperson Peter Stano said.
"This event cannot prejudice the determination of the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh or the outcome of the ongoing negotiation process."
Stano also reiterated the EU's "firm support to the OSCE Minsk Group and, in particular, to its Co-Chairs’ efforts to bring about progress beyond the status quo and substantive negotiations towards comprehensive and sustainable peace."
Azerbaijan and its closest regional ally, Turkey, have both condemned the poll.
The election went ahead despite concerns over the coronavirus outbreak that prompted even some of the candidates to call for their postponement.
As of March 30, the region reported no coronavirus cases, saying that three people who had been isolated on suspicion of having the virus have tested negative for it.
The polls opened at 8 a.m. local time on March 31 and are due to close at 8 p.m.
As voters went to the polls in the region's de facto capital, Stepanakert, and other towns and villages across Nagorno-Karabakh, the authorities said all polling stations had been disinfected.
The region’s top election representative, Srbuhi Arzumanian, said medical protection gear would be distributed to all participants.