Karabakh Holds Local Elections Despite International Criticism

STEPANAKERT (RFE/RL)–The people of Nagorno-Karabakh went to polls on Wednesday for controversial elections of their local government bodies–the second such vote since the Armenian-populated enclave broke away from Azerbaijan’s control ten years ago.

At stake were executive and legislative posts in 223 Karabakh towns and villages contested by nearly 2000 candidates. The spotlight was on the tight race in the capital Stepanakert where the pro-government candidate–Hamik Avanesian–faced five challengers. Avanesian is affiliated with the ruling Democratic Artsakh Union party.

His man rival–Maxim Mirzoyan–is backed by the local branch of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation–the biggest opposition force in Karabakh. The nationalist party hopes to boost its political influence in the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic by winning greater representation in the local government.

The incumbent mayor of Stepanakert–Boris Arushanian–withdrew from the race midway through the election campaign.

No major irregularities were reported during the voting. Karabakh President Arkady Ghoukassian described the polls as "legitimate and democratic" after he cast his ballot at a Stepanakert precinct. "Everything is proceeding in normal conditions–I don’t see any problems," he told reporters.

According to the Karabakh Central Election Commission–the voter turnout stood at 44 percent as of 4 p.m. local time. First official results of the elections are expected on Thursday.

The ballot has been condemned as illegitimate by Azerbaijan and the Council of Europe. The Council warned last month that the elections "cannot be legitimate" in the absence of the disputed enclave’s ethnic Azeri minority which was forced to flee their homes during the secessionist war of the early 1990s.

The Strasbourg-based influential organization also said the "one-sided" elections could damage international efforts to resolve the Karabakh conflict.

But the leadership of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic–backed by Armenia proper–has dismissed the criticism–saying that only elected representatives can have a mandate to make a peace deal with Azerbaijan. The Armenian foreign ministry has likewise announced that Karabakh voters are "realizing their legitimate rights in line with internationally accepted standards."

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