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Kocharian favourite as Armenia's weary voters choose a president
February 19, 2003

Voters in the former Soviet republic of Armenia went to the polls to elect a president with incumbent Robert Kocharian the favourite to win despite a protracted war with neighbouring Azerbaijan which has left the country isolated and impoverished.

Armenia, the world's oldest Christian nation high in the Caucasus mountain range, is under the spotlight from Western governments which have warned they will not tolerate the ballot-rigging that marred previous elections.

But the West also has geo-political reasons for wanting stability in Armenia and the region -- Washington is backing a 2.9-billion-dollar (2.8-billion-euro) pipeline to export oil from Azerbaijan to world markets.

Kocharian, 49, led in the opinion polls going into Wednesday's vote with people crediting him for bringing a degree of stability to the unruly country and achieving modest economic improvements.

As he cast his vote Wednesday morning in the snow-blanketed capital, Yerevan, Kocharian was quietly confident of victory. "I wouldn't have got into this race if I wasn't sure of my chances," he told reporters.

Armenia used to be known as the Soviet bloc's "Silicon Valley." Its factories turned out precision equipment and weapons systems for the Soviet army and its people prospered.

But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the newly-independent state got entangled in a war with its Muslim neighbour, Azerbaijan, over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Though a ceasefire was signed in 1994, the two countries are still technically at war, leaving Armenia under a trade blockade.

Cut off from its main ally and trading partner Russia, Armenia's economy nosedived. Factories shut down and with fuel supplies cut, people had to chop down trees to heat their homes in the bitterly cold winters.

More than a million people -- a third of the population -- left the country to escape the difficult conditions, leaving those who stayed behind to survive on money their relatives abroad wired back home.

The economic chaos was matched by political turmoil. Tanks were brought onto the streets in 1996 to quell a popular revolt and the prime minister and speaker of parliament were assasinated in 1999.

Kocharian, a veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, is a long way from turning the country around. That is a near impossible task for as long as the dispute with Azerbaijan remains unresolved, say Western diplomats.

But electricity and natural gas supplies have been restored, pensions though meagre are paid on time, a few factories have limped back into life and relative stability has returned to Armenia's political life.

"All the other candidates are promising a cataclysm and we do not want that," said Karen Mikailyan, a Yerevan resident, after casting his ballot. "No one is ideal but at least Kocharian is moving the country forward."

To win outright, Kocharian needs to garner more than 50 percent of the votes cast, otherwise he must go through to a March 5 run-off where he is likely to face Stepan Demirchian, the leading challenger in the nine-strong field.

But the dark cloud hanging over the election is that the opposition will urge their supporters to stage mass protests if they judge that Kocharian has engineered a victory by using electoral fraud.

That was the scenario seven years ago, when thousands of angry demonstrators took to the streets of Yerevan after Kocharian's predecessor was declared winner of a disputed presidential election.

This time around, 6,000 observers, including almost 500 from international bodies, have been deployed at polling stations throughout Armenia with the job of ensuring the election is conducted fairly.

But opponents of Kocharian said they had already received reports of widespread irregularities. "This isn't an election, it's a joke," said a senior Demirchian aide, who did not want to be identified.

"If they give the win to Kocharian we will bring our supporters onto the streets. What else can we do?"

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