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Unrecognised Karabakh votes as tensions rise

19 july 2012, 15:40
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An Armenian soldier of the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorno-Karabagh. ©AFP
An Armenian soldier of the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorno-Karabagh. ©AFP
The self-declared state of Nagorny-Karabakh, recognised by no country in the world, on Thursday votes in leadership elections as fears grow of a new conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over its status, AFP reports.

Still internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, Nagorny-Karabakh was claimed by ethnic Armenians backed by Yerevan in a horrific war after the collapse of the Soviet Union that claimed some 30,000 lives.

Now almost exclusively populated by Armenians, the region calls itself the Nagorny-Karabakh republic but its independence is not even recognised by Yerevan. Baku, meanwhile, has repeatedly warned it intends to retake the territory.

International recognition, security and improving economic conditions in the lush but isolated region are the main issues in the elections that pit incumbent leader Bako Sahakyan against retired army general Vitaliy Balasanian.

Analysts say Sahakyan's win is a foregone conclusion for he is backed by the three main political parties represented in the rebel parliament.

"Bako Sahakyan will win in the first round, leaving his challenger far behind. There will be no second round," said Aharon Adibekian, an analyst with the Yerevan-based Sociometre Centre.

With energy-rich Azerbaijan pouring money into its defence budget and international efforts to agree a final peace deal making no progress, analysts have warned the region is a powderkeg that could explode at any time.

Capitalising on populist promises, Sahakyan, 51, has pledged to pursue social and economic reforms as well as assuring voters his forces will repel any attempt by Baku to regain control.

Fatal exchanges of fire across the line of control that marks the 1994 ceasefire are still a frequent occurrence while the forests of Karabakh are littered with death-trap landmines from the war.

"If Baku starts a war then they will not only receive a response from the Karabakh army but will find themselves internationally isolated," Sahakyan told AFP in comments ahead of the election.

"Our people have an unwavering spirit and firm belief in our own future," he said.

Balasanyan, 53, played a prominent role during the 1991-1994 Karabakh war as a deputy commander of the ethnic-Armenian separatist forces.

Azerbaijan has condemned the polls as "illegitimate" and held under Armenian "occupation".

"Holding elections in the occupied territories contradicts international law," said a senior lawmaker from Azerbaijan's ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, Mubariz Gurbanly.

Azerbaijanis were estimated to form around one quarter of Karabakh's population, when it was part of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, but all left in the wake of the war.

According to the Karabakh authorities, the population has now recovered to 145,000 with 99,000 registered voters.

There are still frequent exchanges of gunfire between the opposing armies but locals want to see peace to boost the chances of an economic revival.

"If the conflict is resolved, the government would be able to use finances for creating new jobs, raising pensions and benefits," said local resident Lida Dadayan, whose husband was killed and son is missing in action during the Karabakh war.

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