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Polls show occupied region is main concern in #Azerbaijan

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665003303001_2732651258001_20131091583131734-20A wide-ranging survey has revealed that the Armenian-occupied area of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding provinces is the most important issue for citizens of Azerbaijan, writes Tony Mallett in the capital Baku

The results were revealed in the week that the country went to the polls on 29 constitutional amendments.  Around five million Azerbaijanis were eligible to vote in a referendum on Monday 26 September  that saw an overwhelming majority grant extended powers to the popular president, Ilham Aliyev.

As part of the amendments put to the people, Aliyev aimed to extend his term of office from five to seven years and also create a new first vice president position. The latter post will see the holder become the country’s number two, moving ahead of the prime minister.

Results released earlier this week showed that, of the 3,671, 707 who voted, 91.2% supported the presidential term extension from five-to-seven years, while 89% backed the new vice-president position.

Aliyev has previously won elections by large margins, but the referendum polls show a switch in citizens’ main concerns from oil revenues, the economy and unemployment to the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, which flared up again as recently as April this year.

Nagorno-Karabakh has historically been a part of Azerbaijan, but Armenia occupied the territory and seven other provinces during the Soviet power vacuum of the early 1990s. The South Caucasus region declared independence in 1991 and the subsequent war left more than 25,000 dead.  It also created a million internally displaced people (IDPs), who are now in refugee camps across Azerbaijan.

The occupied territories represent 20% of Azerbaijani land and, in this country of some 9.4 million citizens, more than 10% are currently IDPs.   The two-decade-old crisis situation has seen the Azerbaijanis displaced illegally under international law. Neither the independence nor the republic of Nagorno-Karabakh have been recognised by any United Nations member state, including Armenia itself.  And many institutions, including the UN, the European Parliament, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have called for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian troops from the occupied territories.

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In 1994 a ceasefire was proclaimed between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh, but there have been repeated clashes ever since, the latest this Spring. On certain parts of the border the opposing armies are just 100 metres apart.

Leading New York-based firm Arthur J. Finkelstein conducted a pre-referendum survey on 15 September showing that 96.7% of the Azerbaijani people perceive Nagorno-Karabakh as the most important issue facing the country. Three years ago this was the third highest concern.  The company’s executive director George Birnbaum said: “32,400 interviews were conducted in 100 constituencies by 900 interviewers. This is a huge sample.” He added: “It is no surprise that Azerbaijanis hugely support their president. Nobody wants to change leader during a time of war.”

The European Parliament’s EPP-party delegation was among 117 international observers during the referendum and, on the morning of the poll, met President Aliyev.

European Parliament Vice President and leader of the delegation Mário David told EU Reporter: “We didn’t discuss the referendum. We discussed oil prices and their overall impact on investment and economy.

“Aliyev also underlined that he regretted that the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is no longer high on the international agenda and the different treatment (by the international community) of the question of Crimea and Ukraine in comparison to Nagorno-Karabakh.

“The president was critical of the EU in this respect and also requested practical and financial help (from Europe) regarding the one million IDPs.”

Independent of the USSR since 1991, the Republic of Azerbaijan has been ruled by Aliyev since 2003. He was preceded in the role by his father, Heydar, who was president for a decade.

Azerbaijan is a Muslim but largely secular country close to Iran, Georgia and Turkey on the western edge of the Caspian Sea. In recent years it has worked hard to sell its ‘European’ credentials.

This effort has been largely supported by Europe and has seen the country host various events such as the 2016 European Grand Prix, Eurovision and a major European athletics tournament. Azerbaijan will also see Baku act as a key football venue for the Euro 2020 tournament.

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