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Eighty-eight percent of eligible voters — 69 540 people — in the de facto Republic of Nagorno Karabakh voted to approve draft constitutional reforms in a referendum on 20 February. Once the results come into force, Karabakh will transition into a presidential system of government, and will change its name to the Republic to Artsakh.
According to preliminary results from the Central Election Commission, turnout for the vote was 76% (79,428 people). Of these, 69,540 (88%) voted in favour of the changes, 7,686 people (10%) voted against the reforms, and 2,202 (3%) of ballots were declared invalid, Ekho Kavkaza reports.
The referendum was called to approve amendments to Nagorno-Karabakh’s constitution in order to strengthen the position of the president. Following a 2006 referendum, Nagorno-Karabakh has had a semi-presidential system of government. The referendum envisioned a transition to a more centralised, presidential system. According to the draft law, incumbent NKR President Bako Sahakyan will have the opportunity to stay at the head of the republic until 2020.
The change in the constitution mirrors a referendum in Armenia in December 2015, according to which Armenia transitioned from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government. This move was perceived by many as an attempt by current president, Serzh Sargsyan, whose second term as president expires in 2018, to maintain power by running for Prime Minister.
In addition to the change to a presidential system, the draft law, which was voted during the referendum, also suggested a change of the region’s name to Artsakh, its ‘historic name’.
The referendum is considered illegal by, among many others, the Azerbaijani government, who claim that Nagorno-Karabakh is legally part of Azerbaijan. ‘It constitutes a clear violation of the Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the norms and principles of international law, and, therefore, has no legal effect whatsoever’, an official statement by the MFA of Azerbaijan read.
Azerbaijan also promised to include the names of international observes of the referendum in the their ‘blacklist’. According to Artsakhpress, an Armenian-language news-agency based in the capital, Stepanakert, the referendum was observed by 104 international observers from more than 30 countries.
The referendum also received criticism internationally as an obstacle in the peaceful settlement of the conflict. The co-chairs of the Minsk group of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation of Europe (OSCE), which is working to find a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, said that the results of the referendum ‘in no way prejudge the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh or the outcome of the ongoing negotiations to bring a lasting and peaceful settlement to the conflict’.