STEPANAKERT (RFE/RL)–Arkady Ghoukassian–the incumbent president of Nagorno Karabakh–swept to a predictable landslide victory in Sunday’s presidential election in Nagorno Karabakh–grabbing 89 percent of the vote–officials in Stepanakert announced Monday. Ghoukassian welcomed their outcome as an overwhelming public endorsement of his policies and again warned Azerbaijan against attempting to regain control of Karabakh by force.
Independent international observers–meanwhile–described the polls as largely democratic.
According to the preliminary results of the vote issued by the unrecognized republic’s Central Election Commission (CEC)–Ghoukassian’s nearest rival–former parliament speaker Artur Tovmasian–received 7.7 percent. The two other candidates–Christian Democratic leader Albert Ghazarian and Unity party leader Grigory Afanasian–trailed the two men with 2.1 percent and 1.3 respectively–the official figures show.
The CEC said 76 percent of some 90,000 eligible electors took part in the voting–which international monitors say proceeded without major irregularities. There were no complaints filed by Ghoukassian’s challengers. Tovmasian and his aides said on Sunday that they are satisfied with the authorities’ conduct of the elections.
All four presidential candidates ruled out Karabakh’s return to Azerbaijani rule during the election campaign–saying that re-unification with Armenia remains the ultimate aim of the Karabakh Armenia’s. Meeting with journalists after the announcement of his victory–Ghoukassian warned: "Any attempt by Azerbaijan to bring Karabakh into submission would lead to war."
Like all previous elections held in Nagorno Karabakh–Sunday’s ballot was denounced by Azerbaijan. "The elections were not legitimate and their results have no legal power," an Azerbaijani foreign ministry spokesman told Reuters in Baku.
The international community has likewise refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Karabakh vote–arguing that it should have been held only after an Armenian-Azerbaijan agreement on the breakaway enclave’s status.
However–the authorities in Stepanakert–backed by Armenia proper–counter that only elected representatives of Karabakh can have a mandate to continue peace talks with Azerbaijan. The presence of two US congressmen and about a hundred international election monitors was a major boost to their case.
"The elections reminded me very much of our elections in the United States," Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ)–co-chairman of Congress’ Armenian Caucus–told RFE/RL in Stepanakert–adding that he was impressed with the high voter turnout. "It says a lot about Karabakh and its people. It shows that the people of Karabakh are a real nation and are willing to do what’s necessary to be Western and democratic."
Another pro-Armenian congressman–Lloyd Doggett (D-TX)–called the Karabakh vote "a step in the right direction."Karabakh has chosen democracy instead of military or pseudo-military rule," Doggett said. "Despite many obstacles that the Azeris put in the way of peace–I hope that this election will encourage Karabakh and Armenia to take bold steps for peace."
The international monitors–for their part–said the presidential elections largely met democratic standards. "Nagorno-Karabakh has made demonstrable progress in building democracy and its authorities have made a serious effort to conduct the 2002 polls by democratic means," a private American monitoring group composed of former government officials and scholars–concluded in its preliminary report.
The report welcomes–in particular–the four candidates’ support for "civilian control over the military." It also calls for "fundamental structural changes" in Karabakh election procedures–saying that the local CEC should become more independent and representative.
The five-member monitoring team was led by James Hooper–a retired US State Department official. It also included Richard Viets–former US ambassador to Jordan and Tanzania.
Meanwhile–Ghoukassian on Monday received official congratulations from Armenian President Robert Kocharian–who himself had led Karabakh from 1992-97. "Your reelection is a free expression of the will of the Artsakh people to march on resolutely along the path of freedom–independence and democracy," Kocharian said in a letter to the Karabakh president.
His Holiness Karekin II–Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenia’s–on behalf of the Supreme Spiritual Council and the Brotherhood of Holy Etchmiadzin–also sent a letter of congratulations to Ghoukassian. The letter states in part: "By the election of a president for the Karabakh–the heroic people of Artsakh once again established their will to live free–and proclaimed their readiness to assist in the strengthening of the government of Artsakh–benefiting the reinforcing of the country and the desire to travel the journey which leads to prosperity.
Vice Speaker of the House of Lords of Great Britain Caroline Cox also congratulated Ghoukassian and told Arminfo that "day by day Nagorno Karabakh moves forward to an independent state system–and in order the external world to know about it–the presence of international observers is very important."
Lady Cox expressed dissatisfaction on the occasion of the declarations of a number of international organization and countries on the illegitimacy of the presidential elections in Karabakh. She mentioned that they seek ways for peaceful settlement of the conflict within the framework of the OSCE and it is irrelevant that others expressed their opinion in such way. "It’s very important that the people of Nagorno Karabakh try to create a democratic society," Caroline Cox underlined.
Ghoukassian first became Nagorno Karabakh president in August 1997 in a pre-term election called shortly after Kocharian was appointed prime minister of Armenia.
In March 2000–Ghoukassian survived an apparent assassination attempt which he claims was hatched by the once powerful general. The Karabakh leader was seriously wounded in the legs when gunmen opened fire on his limousine in Stepanakert.
But Ghoukassian indicated on Monday that there will be no sweeping reshuffle of his administration–promising only "some staff changes" which he said "must not be an end in itself."