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President's Popularity Is Armenian Election Issue

Politics: With few major differences between candidates, the vote becomes a referendum on Ter-Petrosyan's record.

September 21, 1996|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YEREVAN, Armenia — The cost of having a job is getting so prohibitive for Suren Sheyranyan that he says he would quit and do nothing if not for his self-respect.

An engineer with no employment prospects in impoverished Armenia, he spends weeks working construction jobs in faraway Moscow for cut-rate wages that barely cover the cost of an occasional flight home to Yerevan and the $2 daily visitor's tax charged to out-of-towners in the Russian capital.

"A man has to work, but this is an absurd way to live," the 45-year-old with a wife and two children says on a visit home to cast his vote in Sunday's presidential election.

Fed up with the snail's pace of post-Communist recovery in his homeland, he plans to join masses of other frustrated Armenians in voting for Vazgen Manukyan, a former prime minister who is challenging incumbent President Levon A. Ter-Petrosyan.

An unusual display of unity among Armenia's scattered political forces has presented Ter-Petrosyan with the first serious challenge to his leadership in the five years since Armenia broke free of the Soviet Union.

Ter-Petrosyan's supporters and some independent analysts warn that this tiny country wedged between hostile neighbors will only suffer further detours along the road to prosperity if it changes political course just as it has begun to rebound after having hit bottom.

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Predictions on the outcome are precarious; opinion polls here are shamelessly partisan. The ruling Pan-Armenian National Movement is forecasting as much as a 60% share for Ter-Petrosyan, while surveys conducted by the opposition coalition, calling itself the Government for National Accord, indicate that Manukyan will win on the first ballot.

A Communist Party candidate and one opposition holdout threaten to prevent either of the two front-runners from winning an outright majority Sunday. But most observers expect the incumbent to prevail on the strength of his broader access to the media and general public reluctance to encourage further upheaval.

Unlike this summer's contest of extremes in the Russian presidential election, Ter-Petrosyan and Manukyan have little ideological distance between them. Both are articulate academics who advocate free-market reforms, with the 50-year-old mathematician-challenger pushing a more populist program, promising higher wages and subsidies than Ter-Petrosyan, 51, a scholar of literature.

The absence of radical differences between the main candidates has transformed the election into a referendum on the incumbent's track record at a time when many Armenians are disenchanted and apathetic.

"I think the current president has done as good a job as anyone could under the circumstances. At least our stores are full now, and the electricity has been switched on," says Tamara Akopyan, 36, a nurse who adds that she has absolutely no intention of voting.

Others who do plan to cast ballots say Ter-Petrosyan has had his chance to lead Armenia out of its economic doldrums and now it is time to give someone else the reins of power.

"It is the fault of the president that the country is in this condition," Sheyranyan says. "He's the driver and we're the passengers. If we don't get anywhere, he is the one who is responsible for that failure."

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Retired geologist Aida Isahakyan, 64, has three grown children with college educations, but none can find work here.

Her youngest son works as a "shuttle trader," running goods between Mediterranean producers and Russian markets and sending home $60 to $80 a month to his parents and siblings.

"It is very important to get industry working again. Otherwise we will continue to lose our young people to foreign countries," says Isahakyan, who with her husband earned the equivalent of $1,600 a month during the height of their careers in the waning days of the Soviet Union.

An itinerant life is not unusual for Armenian men, who often feel forced to look abroad for employment as their homeland suffers at least 30% unemployment and as the average income for those who do have work hovers below $60 a month. Estimates of the number of citizens working abroad range upward of 400,000--a huge share of the labor force in a country of only 3.6 million.

Economist Armen Yeghiazaryan notes that foreign earnings, plus an estimated $10 million per month in remittances from Armenian relatives permanently living abroad, make up as much as 70% of family income, a situation he describes as lifesaving but abnormal.

But he argues that major achievements have been made in transforming the economy and that recovery is on the horizon if his fellow Armenians resist taking the advances for granted. At least two-thirds of the economy is in private hands, and agricultural output has increased under a land reform program begun five years ago.

Homes and shops glow with light round-the-clock now, in sharp contrast with the severe energy shortages that persisted until a year ago and plunged even this city of 1 million into darkness.

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