A separatist Azerbaijani enclave dominated by ethnic Armenians is voting in a presidential election on Thursday that focuses on internal issues and is unlikely to affect a two-decade-old dispute over the ex-Soviet territory’s status.
Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous, heavily-forested territory with a population of about 140,000, has been under the control of Armenian forces and ethnic Armenian local troops since the end of six years of fighting in 1994 that left some 30,000 people dead and more than a million displaced.
Azerbaijan has repeatedly threatened to try to regain control of the territory by force. Talks between Armenia, Azerbaijan and OSCE representatives to resolve one of the most worrisome “frozen conflicts” in the former Soviet Union have dragged on for years, but have shown little result.
The election pits incumbent Bako Saakian against two challengers. All three support including Nagorno-Karabakh representatives in the talks on the region’s status, but differ on economic issues and allegations of corruption.
Azerbaijan denounced the elections Thursday as part of Armenia’s policies of “annexation and occupation” of its territory, according to a Foreign Ministry statement.
In the Communist era, Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous region within Soviet Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh is a Russian-Turkish term that means “mountainous black garden.” Ethnic Armenians, who now account for virtually the entire population, call the region Artsakh.
Azerbaijan, an energy-rich, predominantly Muslim country on the Caspian Sea, has struggled to cope with the hundreds of thousands of people driven out of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas that also fell under Armenian control.
Both separatist and Azeri governments report sporadic skirmishes and shootings of each other’s servicemen on the border.
Impoverished, landlocked and mostly Christian Armenia has been hurt economically by Turkey’s closing of the border in 1993 in support of Azerbaijan. Turkey shares close ethnic and linguistic ties with Azeris.
Before becoming part of czarist Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan had long been dominated by Iran and Ottoman Turkey.