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Armenians Vote for New President

Caucasus: International observers keep watch. Fraud allegations marred 1st round.

March 31, 1998|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YEREVAN, Armenia — Armenians went to the polls Monday to choose a new president, uneasy and suspicious after international monitors made allegations of vote-rigging during a first round of balloting two weeks ago.

Both campaigns complained of minor violations by their opponents, but voting was quiet. Agvan Vardanyan, spokesman for the front-running Robert Kocharyan, dismissed allegations by the rival camp as "an attempt to save face in the event of failure."

However, international monitors have warned that the worst violations in a slew of previous problematical Armenian elections came after voting finished, during ballot-counting. They are unlikely to drop their guard yet.

The election pitted Kocharyan, the 43-year-old prime minister and acting president, who got 39% of the vote in the first round March 16, against sleek ex-Communist leader Karen S. Demirchyan, 66, who earlier scored 31%. But it represented more than a simple choice of leader in this small, poor ex-Soviet state.

The matchup has drawn international attention because the West, eager to profit from vast oil finds in neighboring Azerbaijan, is anxious for a quick settlement to a 10-year-old dispute between Azerbaijanis and Armenians over who should rule Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority enclave in Azerbaijan. Negotiators are worried that the election of Kocharyan, a tough ex-ruler of Karabakh, might deadlock peace talks.

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The West is worried too that more electoral fraud inside Armenia--which has seen a series of dubious votes since 1995, usually angled toward keeping in power the country's current ruler--would seriously compromise the country's credentials as a young democracy, diplomats say.

So the international community is getting tough. Armenia's big and politically active diaspora has ensured until now that the country's international profile was high and that its tribulations--pogroms by Azerbaijanis during the perestroika era, a devastating earthquake in 1988, and two winters virtually without heat and light at the height of the Karabakh conflict in the early 1990s--got sympathetic attention.

But diplomats are now making clear that any new fraud could cause Armenia's international aid to be cut. Since independence in 1991, Armenia has received $1 billion from the United States alone, second in per capita terms only to American contributions to Israel.

One cause for concern this week has been the discrepancy between opinion polls about the upcoming results. There are no official polls, but estimates put forward by Kocharyan's supporters suggested he will have received between 56% and 57% of Monday's vote, with Demirchyan trailing at 43% to 44%. One alternative poll, scientifically conducted and quoted by Western diplomats, indicated that Demirchyan in fact commands the sympathies of 53% of Armenians while Kocharyan lags with 36%.

After the first round of voting, Sam Brown, the American special representative heading nearly 200 international election monitors fielded by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, complained that there had been significant violations at 15% of polling stations. He added, however, that these violations had not affected the overall result.

"We regret that this first round of the elections fell short of the standards to which Armenia has committed itself in OSCE documents," Brown said. He predicted that the second round would avoid ballot-box stuffing, soldiers voting the way officers told them, precincts policed by unauthorized men, media bias and campaign violence. The State Department echoed these views.

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Kocharyan, voting at a dental clinic here in the capital on a gray, chilly morning, said steps had been taken to limit abuses.

"We've tried to take the [OSCE] recommendations into account. I think it will be much better," he said after releasing two doves into the air.

But the OSCE recommendations have caused much ill-feeling both inside Armenia and among diaspora Armenians in the United States and elsewhere. These observers increasingly see Armenia's relations with the outside world in terms of a battle for Washington influence between a pro-Armenian lobby and an oil lobby that they believe is pressing Azerbaijan's interests in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The diaspora's Armenian Assembly of America issued a furious counterattack last week. It accused the OSCE, which is also negotiating for peace in Nagorno-Karabakh, of having a conflict of interest, saying "the OSCE's obvious bias in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has impacted its ability to report objectively on Armenia's presidential election."

* VOTING IN SOUTHLAND

Armenians living in the Southland cast votes in their homeland's presidential election. B3

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