Breakaway Nagorny Karabakh Elects New Parliament
Azerbaijan's separatist region of Nagorny Karabakh went to the polls Sunday to elect a new parliament in a vote denounced as illegitimate by Baku and the West.
For over two decades, the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute over the territory -- which no country recognizes as independent -- has been a major source of tension in the strategic South Caucasus region wedged between Iran, Russia and Turkey.
The dispute is rooted in a bloody war in the early 1990s following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Yerevan-backed ethnic Armenian separatists seized control of Karabakh and several other regions of Azerbaijan during the conflict that left some 30,000 dead.
While Yerevan does not recognize Nagorny Karabakh's independence claim, Armenia and rebel leaders pledged the elections would be free and fair, insisting that they were being held in line with international standards.
"Holding elections in Nagorny Karabakh proves the high level of democracy there," Armenian foreign ministry spokesman Tigran Balayan told AFP.
The elections "will be another step towards strengthening the democratic traditions and values in our country," the rebel region's foreign minister Karen Mirzoyan told AFP ahead of the vote.
He said that international mediators at peace talks "have since 1992 taken the position that Karabakh's democratically elected representatives must be party to the negotiations on the conflict's peaceful settlement".
But oil-rich Azerbaijan, which has threatened to retake the region by force, condemned the election as illegal.
"The so-called 'elections' in Armenian-occupied Karabakh have no legal force, they contradict Azerbaijan's constitution and international law," Azerbaijan's foreign ministry spokesman Hikmat Hajiyev told AFP.
"Armenia stages a provocation called 'elections' which harms the ongoing negotiations."
- 'We will not accept results' -
The European Union and the United States also weighed in this week on the Karabakh poll.
The EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said through a spokesperson on Friday that "the European Union does not recognize the constitutional and legal framework" within which the elections were to be held.
The U.S. Department of State's acting spokesman, Jeff Rathke, told journalists on Friday: "The United States does not recognize Nagorny Karabakh as an independent sovereign state, and accordingly, we will not accept the results of the elections on May 3."
Karabakh's ethnic-Azerbaijani community -- which before the war made up around 25 percent of the population -- was entirely driven out.
The enclave's 149,000-strong population is now mainly ethnic Armenian.
Despite years of negotiations, the two sides have not signed a final peace deal, with Karabakh internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
Baku, whose military spending exceeds Armenia's entire state budget, has threatened to take back the territories by force if negotiations fail.
Armenia, backed militarily by Russia, says it could crush any offensive.
Threatening a shaky truce, clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces intensified again this year following an unprecedented spiral of violence in 2014.
Seven parties are running in Sunday's polls for 33 seats in a legislature elected for five years.
Analysts say three parties -- the Democratic Party of Karabakh led by current speaker Ashot Gulian, prime minister Araik Harutyunyan's Free Motherland party and the nationalist Dashnaktsutyun -- are expected to clear the five-percent threshold to get into parliament.
A total of 278 polling stations in Karabakh and one in the Armenian capital Yerevan opened at 8:00 am (0400 GMT) and were to close at 8:00 pm (1600 GMT).