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Nagorno-Karabakh Election Runoff Under Way Amid Criticism, Coronavirus Concerns

Nagorno-Karabakh’s outgoing de facto leader, Bako Sahakian
Nagorno-Karabakh’s outgoing de facto leader, Bako Sahakian

De facto authorities in Azerbaijan's breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh are holding a second round of elections for the disputed region’s leader on April 14 amid international criticism and safety concerns due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Voters headed to polls on April 14 after results from the first round of the vote on March 31 showed Ara Harutyunian, a wealthy businessman and former prime minister, winning over 49 percent, just short of the majority needed for an outright victory.

Masis Mayilian finished second with 26.4 percent.

On April 12, Nagorno-Karabakh’s outgoing de facto leader, Bako Sahakian, declared a coronavirus-related emergency situation in the region, but stopped short of postponing the runoff election, sparking criticism from some who feared bringing groups of people together for voting may exacerbate the coronavirus outbreak.

Mayilian has urged people not to go to the polls because of the pandemic, saying he will not cast his vote today either, though he has stopped short of withdrawing from the race.

No international observers are monitoring the elections because of the outbreak. Only local observers and observers from Armenia are participating in a monitoring mission.

Nagorno-Karabakh was seized by Armenian-backed separatists who declared independence amid a 1988-94 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.

Russia, the United States, and France are the co-chairs of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that acts as a mediator in resolving the crisis. The group has been struggling for years to mediate a solution to the crisis.

After the first round, the European Union reminded Karabakh leaders that it does not recognize 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.

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."

The OSCE Minsk Group also issued a statement on March 31 saying it "recognizes the role of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh in deciding its future," but reminded the de facto leaders of the breakaway region that "Nagorno-Karabakh is not recognized as an independent and sovereign state" by any country.

"Accordingly, the co-chairs do not accept the results of these 'elections' as affecting the legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh and stress that the results in no way prejudge the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh or the outcome of the ongoing negotiations to bring a lasting and peaceful settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict," the statement said.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Armenian Service
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