Referendum to create 'Republic of Artsakh' on Europe's fringe
Some 100,000 ethnic Armenians are voting on a new name for their territory and new powers for their leader on Monday (20 February) in the crosshairs of Azerbaijan’s artillery and missiles.
The referendum, in what used to be called the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, but what is likely to be called the Republic of Artsakh after the vote, comes in reaction to Azerbaijan’s military assault last April, which claimed between 50 and 350 lives on both sides.
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The conflict, which dates back to the break-up of the Soviet Union, and which sees almost daily exchanges of fire on the line of contact, has the potential to quickly escalate into a fight between Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh’s neighbour and sponsor, and Azerbaijan.
Armenia and Azerbaijan are both negotiating new treaties with the EU as part of its Eastern Partnership policy to build closer ties with former Soviet states.
But if the conflict escalates, with missiles striking Yerevan and Baku, that policy would be in tatters, with thousands of refugees instead fleeing to Europe.
It would disrupt Azerbaijan’s oil exports to the EU and plans to build a new gas pipeline, reducing dependence on Russia.
It could also draw in Russia, which has a treaty obligation to defend Armenia, Nato member Turkey, which has pledged to side with Azerbaijan, and Iran, which does not want to see Azerbaijan extend control over its northern border and exert more influence over the ethnic Azeri population in Iran’s northern regions.
This story is the first in a series of features by EUobserver that will examine the issues and look at the lives of ethnic Armenians in a situation which some believe is leading “inevitably” to Europe’s next war.
“It’s not because they don’t recognise us, that we don’t exist,” said an official in Nagorno-Karabakh’s “foreign ministry” in its capital, Stepanakert, on Sunday, while pointing out electoral districts on a map of the mountainous region the size of Luxembourg.
Nagorno-Karabakh split from Azerbaijan in a war in the early 1990s that cost up to 30,000 lives and displaced more than 1 million people in Armenia and Azerbaijan.
It ended with Armenian forces occupying Nagorno-Karabakh and seven other districts in Azerbaijan which it has held on to as a buffer zone.
Various peace plans, mediated by the so-called Minsk Group, which is composed of French, Russian, and US diplomats, have come and gone over the years.
No other country has so far recognised Nagorno-Karabakh, with both the Minsk Group and the EU routinely issuing statements that its elections and referendums have no meaning.
Its government, which has unofficial contacts with EU diplomats, says that the international community could be more constructive. “They could, at least, acknowledge our efforts to create a democratic way of life while maintaining neutrality on the status issue,” a government source told EUobserver on Sunday.
The authorities also mistrust Russia, which has sold billions of euros of arms to Azerbaijan, some of which were used in last April’s four-day war.
The sense of isolation has prompted the “republic” to rely on its own resources and on Armenia to try to safeguard its future.
Monday’s referendum is to alter the constitution, giving its president the power to take swift decisions on security issues and changing its name from Nagorno-Karabakh, a mixture of Russian and Turkic words, to Artsakh, an old Armenian word that implies a wider territorial claim not just to the republic, but also to the other seven occupied regions of Azerbaijan.
It is a direct reaction to the shock of Azerbaijan’s surprise attack last year.
It is also a reaction to Azerbaijan’s years-long military build-up and to increasing war rhetoric by Azerbaijan’s leader, Ilham Aliyev.
In a sign of the growing hostility in Baku, Aliyev, already four years ago, cancelled one of the only initiatives that tried to build bridges between people on both sides.
Irina Gzigozian, a Nagorno-Karabakh resident, who started the Public Diplomacy Initiative, an NGO, told EUobserver on Sunday that she used to bring together women from Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan to “exchange stories” in neutral places, such as Cyprus or Georgia.
She spoke of one Azeri “girl” who went to Tbilisi and who initially voiced “hatred,” but who “ended up singing Armenian songs.”
That all ended in 2013 by Aliyev’s order. In today’s climate, Gzigozian said, people in Azerbaijan decline to take part even in Facebook discussions for fear of being caught by Aliyev’s internet police.
Tevan Poghosyan, an Armenian MP, believes that last April’s attack was prompted by Aliyev’s need to shore up his authority amid falling oil prices and a slump in Azerbaijan’s currency, the manat, which aggravated poverty in the Muslim petro-dictatorship.
He said in Yerevan on Saturday that without international intervention war was “inevitable” and that it was likely to happen in 2018, when Aliyev will try to hold on to power in presidential elections amid falling popularity.
Srbuhi Arzumanian, the head of Nagorno-Karabakh’s electoral commission, told press on Sunday that 102,757 people out of the republic’s 147,000 strong population were eligible to cast a ballot.
She noted that Nagorno-Karabakh has already held two referendums and 11 other elections in its 26-year long history.
She said that 104 monitors from more than 30 countries, including three MEPs, would oversee the process.
She also promised that people who fled from Talish, a village destroyed by Azerbaijan last April, would get the chance to vote.
Arzumanian added that there was just one complaint in the last election - a demand for a recount in one district which upheld the original tally.
One of the international monitors, Hans-Jochen Schmidt, Germany’s former ambassador to Armenia, told EUobserver on Monday: “Almost everybody outside Nagorno-Karabakh considers this [the referendum] as an illegitimate act, so they are trying very hard to make sure that it lives up to international standards.”
“Of course, Azerbaijan will consider it as a provocation. They even consider elections here as provocations,” he added.
Hans-Juergen Zahorka, another monitor who is a German former MEP, said that the show of democracy in Nagorno-Karabakh poses a challenge to Aliyev ahead of his own elections next year.
“For many Azerbaijanis, this referendum is an example of opportunities that they will never have under their current system,” he said, referring to Aliyev’s increasingly totalitarian rule.