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The year 2004 represented the 10-year anniversary of the end of the brutal war that was fought over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region. Progress remained stalled in international efforts to bring about an enduring political resolution to the disputed territory. Though a fragile ceasefire is in force, the two sides are officially in a state of war. Armenian-backed forces and Azerbaijani troops continue to face each other across a demilitarized zone.
The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, which is largely populated by ethnic Armenians and is located inside the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, was established in 1923. In February 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh's regional legislature adopted a resolution calling for union with Armenia. The announcement triggered the first mass violence related to the conflict with attacks against Armenians in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait several days later.
Successive battles and counteroffensives were fought over the next several years between various Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Nagorno-Karabakh forces. At its inaugural session in January 1992, Nagorno-Karabakh's new legislature adopted a declaration of independence, which was not recognized by the international community. By the time a Russian-brokered ceasefire was signed in May 1994, Karabakh Armenians, assisted by Armenia, had captured essentially the entire territory, as well as six Azerbaijani districts surrounding the enclave. Nearly all ethnic Azeris had fled or been forced out of the enclave and its surrounding areas, and the fighting had resulted in thousands of casualties and an estimated one million refugees.
In December 1994, the head of Nagorno-Karabakh's state defense committee, Robert Kocharian, was selected by the territory's parliament for the newly established post of president. Parliamentary elections were held in April and May 1995, and Kocharian defeated two other candidates in a popular vote for president in November of the following year.
In September 1997, Foreign Minister Arkady Ghukasian was elected to replace Kocharian, who had been named prime minister of Armenia in March of that year. In the territory's June 2000 parliamentary vote, 123 candidates representing five parties competed for the assembly's 33 seats. The ruling Democratic Union Artsakh (ZhAM), which supported Ghukasian, enjoyed a slim victory, winning 13 seats. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation - Dashnaktsutiun won 9 seats, the Armenakan Party captured 1 seat, and formally independent candidates, most of whom supported Ghukasian, won 10. International observers described the electoral campaign and voting process as calm and largely transparent, although problems were noted with the accuracy of some voter lists.
In February 2001, former defense minister Samvel Babayan was found guilty of organizing a March 2000 assassination attempt against Ghukasian and sentenced to 14 years in prison. His supporters insisted that the arrest was politically motivated, as Babayan had been involved in a power struggle with Ghukasian. Others, however, welcomed the arrest and conviction of Babayan, who had been accused of corruption and reportedly wielded considerable political and economic power in the territory.
Ghukasian was reelected to a second term as president on August 11, 2002, with 89 percent of the vote. His closest challenger, former Speaker of Parliament Artur Tovmasian, received just 8 percent. Voter turnout was close to 75 percent. Observers from countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, and France reported no serious violations. While a number of domestic and international nongovernmental organizations concluded that the elections marked a further step in Nagorno-Karabakh's democratization, they did voice some criticisms, including the limited access for the opposition to state-controlled media. Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry described the election as a violation of international norms, insisting that a legitimate vote could be held only after a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
With both Armenia's president, Robert Kocharian, and Azerbaijan's president, Heydar Aliyev, poised to seek reelection in 2003 - and the domestic political risk associated with either leader's making significant public concessions over the territory during a campaign year - few observers expected any breakthroughs in the conflict during 2003. An upsurge in shooting incidents along the ceasefire line in the summer, which both Armenian and Azerbaijani officials accused the other side of instigating, fueled concerns of a further and more widespread escalation of violence.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group - which was established a decade earlier to facilitate dialogue on a political settlement on Nagorno-Karabakh's status - continued to attempt to coax forward a resolution of the long-standing dispute but made little meaningful headway on this during 2004. While Armenia insists that Nagorno-Karabakh should be left outside Azeri jurisdiction, Azerbaijan maintains that the territory may be granted broad autonomy while remaining a constituent part of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan also has refused to negotiate with Ghukasian, who has demanded direct representation in the peace process.
Nagorno-Karabakh held local elections in August, ignoring calls from the Council of Europe to cancel the balloting. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry issued a protest at the holding of these elections in the territory, which is internationally recognized as being part of Azerbaijan. The Armenian authorities in Karabakh, in turn, rejected the Azerbaijani claims.
Nagorno-Karabakh has enjoyed de facto independence from Azerbaijan since 1994 and retains close political, economic, and military ties with Armenia. Parliamentary elections in 1995 and 2000 were regarded as generally free and fair, as were the 1996 and 1997 presidential votes. However, the elections were considered invalid by most of the international community, which does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh's independence. Nagorno-Karabakh's electoral law calls for a single-mandate system to be used in parliamentary elections; lawmakers have rejected the opposition's demands for the inclusion of party-based lists.
The territory officially remains under martial law, which imposes restrictions on civil liberties, including media censorship and the banning of public demonstrations. However, the authorities maintain that these provisions have not been enforced since 1995, a year after the ceasefire was signed.
The government controls many of the territory's broadcast media outlets, and most journalists practice self-censorship, particularly on subjects dealing with policies related to Azerbaijan and the peace process. Some observers maintain that the government used the attempted murder of President Arkady Ghukasian in 2000 as a pretext to intensify attacks against its critics. In 2004, Demo, the first independent nongovernmental publication, appeared in Nagorno-Karabakh. Printed in Armenian and Russian and provided with support by a British nongovernmental organization, Demo was a small bright spot on an otherwise dismal media landscape.
The registration of religious groups is required under Nagorno-Karabakh's 1997 law on religion. The Armenian Apostolic Church, which is the territory's predominant religion, is the only faith registered with the territory. According to Forum 18, a religious-freedom watchdog group based in Norway, members of various minority faiths, including Pentecostals, Adventists, Baptists, and Jehovah's Witnesses, have faced restrictions on their activities.
Freedom of assembly and association is limited, although political parties and unions are allowed to organize.
The judiciary, which is not independent in practice, is influenced by the executive branch and powerful political and clan forces. Former defense minister Samvel Babayan alleged that he had been physically assaulted during his interrogation and detention as a suspect in the failed assassination attempt against Ghukasian in March 2000. The presiding judge in the case announced that the subsequent guilty verdict against Babayan was based on pretrial testimony in which Babayan confessed to the charges, although Babayan later retracted his admission of guilt, claiming that it had been obtained under duress. In 2003, the republic's authorities announced the replacement of the death penalty with life imprisonment.
The majority of Azeris who fled the fighting continue to live in squalid conditions in refugee camps in Azerbaijan, while international aid organizations are reducing direct assistance to the refugees. Land mine explosions continue to result in casualties each year, with children and teenagers among the most vulnerable groups. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, at least 50,000 anti-personnel mines were laid during the war, although in many cases, records of minefield locations were never created or were lost. The HALO Trust, a British nongovernmental organization, is the major de-mining group operating in the territory.
Nagorno-Karabakh's fragile peace has failed to bring significant improvement to the economy, particularly in the countryside, and pensioners are particularly hard hit. Widespread corruption, a lack of substantive economic reforms, and the control of major economic activity by powerful elites limit equality of opportunity for most residents.