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Local Armenians Flock to Polls for Presidential Runoff

March 06, 2003|Michael Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

Thousands of Armenian nationals living in Southern California waited as long as two hours Wednesday in Glendale and Beverly Hills to cast their ballots in the Republic of Armenia's bitterly contested presidential runoff election.

Unlike the unruly February presidential balloting, Wednesday's voting went smoothly, according to officials.

"This time we asked for a private security service to control the commotion and this helped greatly," said Valery Mkrtoumian, counsel general of the Los Angeles Consulate of the Republic of Armenia.

Throughout the day, hundreds of Armenian nationals waited quietly and patiently along Brand Boulevard in Glendale and La Cienega Avenue in Beverly Hills to cast their votes for President Robert Kocharyan or his rival, Stepan Demirchyan.

Inside the banquet hall of the Armenian Society of Los Angeles in Glendale, voters showed their Armenian passports -- a requirement to vote -- before moving slowly to receive their ballots and heading to the voting booths. A few seconds later -- the ballot was only for the president -- they headed out.

The February elections in Armenia were tainted with allegations of intimidation and ballot-box stuffing by supporters of Kocharyan, who was first elected in 1998.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly criticized the election, citing numerous violations.

Local supporters of Demirchyan feared the same would happen again, both here and abroad.

"This is not to going to be a fair election again," said Armen Zatikyan, a Demirchyan supporter who lives in North Hollywood. "No one has a job in Armenia, no one is working, so why would anybody vote for Kocharyan's dictatorship. But, he has the guns and the Mafia on his side."

An official of the Armenian government called the allegations of dictatorship and organized crime ridiculous. He also praised the Glendale/Beverly Hills elections. .

"Look around here, things are going smoothly, everyone can vote and their vote will be properly counted," said Hakop Hovanesyan, assistant to the Armenian counsel general, who laughed at the notion of ballot stuffing.

One of the day's most heated moments came when Hovanesyan and Zatikyan came nearly jaw to jaw, loudly arguing over who would count the votes and who would observe the counting.

"The election committee is all from the government. There is no one from the opposition," said Zatikyan loudly, pointing his finger at the vice counsel.

Hovanesyan cranked his voice up and moved closer, telling Zatikyan that three of the six observers were Demirchyan supporters. Urik Vardanian, leader of the local Demirchyan support group, complained that there were only two polling places in the Los Angeles area for the more than 100,000 Armenian citizens who live here.

"Why didn't the government give us more places to vote?" asked Vardanian, a former champion Soviet Union weightlifter who lives in Moorpark. "Why? Because they knew everyone would vote for Demirchyan."

In February's balloting in L.A., Demirchyan received about 75% of the more than 3,000 votes cast, according to Mkrtoumian.

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