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With Vote Over, Armenians Wait for Better Days to Materialize

Partial returns in the second-round balloting show the incumbent president leading his challenger, who alleges election fraud.

March 06, 2003|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

GAGARIN, Armenia — The main activity of the men in this town, according to the women, is ambling around the streets, gathering in knots, talking and ambling on.

But Wednesday was different. There was something important to do and something to talk about: It was voting day.

One local man, Robert Sarkisyan, 43, has been out of a job for 13 years. His 23-year-old son is unemployed, and his 19-year-old son probably won't find work when he finishes his military duty in six months.

They are typical victims of Armenia's grinding struggle to restructure its economy, in this bleak town of 1,800 people that has seen 16 of its 17 factories close since the collapse of the Soviet Union, including the crystal factory where Sarkisyan once worked.

Yet, moved by some faint stirring of optimism, he voted for incumbent President Robert Kocharyan in Wednesday's second-round poll, explaining that he had seen the president's achievements "with my own eyes."

Asked to name an achievement, he paused, stumped.

"I like the way he talks," he finally murmured through broken teeth that he cannot afford to fix. Pressed again on a Kocharyan accomplishment, Sarkisyan said he believed that there were "almost none."

"I just like him," he acknowledged. Although Sarkisyan can see no evidence of it in his own life, he feels that Armenia is slowly moving forward.

In the first round of the election Feb. 20, only a quarter of Gagarin's voters took that view. Stepan Demirchyan, Kocharyan's second-round challenger, won 328 votes here in the first round compared with 227 for the incumbent. Nationally, however, the order was the reverse: 49.8% to Kocharyan and 28.3% to Demirchyan.

"Take a look around," said Liliya Voloshina, 62, explaining why she backed Demirchyan on Wednesday. "The men just walk around all the time. They do the same every day. The most important thing is work. Someone new is always better."

With votes from 1,443 of the 1,865 electoral districts counted early today, Kocharyan had 68.4% and Demirchyan 31.6%, electoral officials said.

The elections have exposed Armenia's halting steps to democracy and its lingering Soviet political culture. Before Wednesday's vote, Western observers had sharply criticized the ballot stuffing in the first round, the arrests of more than 100 opposition activists and cases of intimidation.

A further problem, in a population that has seen vast emigration in the last decade, is the use of old electoral rolls, allowing plenty of room for abuse, one Western diplomat said.

International observers reporting on the second round of voting will release their findings today, but the Demirchyan camp was crying foul Wednesday, claiming massive fraud.

Several observers for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, declining to be named, said there were violations, but they differed on the scale of the abuse.

"It's clear that the election has been stolen. At almost every station we went to, we found something. They just stuffed the ballot boxes," one observer said. "The most important question tomorrow is, who will this president represent? Apparently only the people who control the elections."

Another observer said there were "lightly serious violations." But compared with other former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, he said, Armenia is "paradise."

Of most concern to Western observers were the arrests or intimidation of Demirchyan supporters after the first round, many of them key opposition activists. Many were sentenced to terms of 15 to 30 days, preventing them from participating in the second vote. But after an outcry by international observers and human rights groups, authorities released some of them.

"You have a political culture that's quite common here coming out of the Soviet past and the lack of a political will to counter that," a Western diplomat said. "Essentially, there's a lack of political will to ensure that people at all levels follow the game."

A debate on state television between Kocharyan and Demirchyan two days before the vote was an attempt to mimic a Western presidential election but was heavily tilted toward the president, though the challenger also failed to make the best of what limited opportunities were offered.

"It wasn't like a proper debate," snorted one Demirchyan voter, Vartan Tatevosyan, 52. "It looked more like a Kocharyan press conference."

A former economist, Tatevosyan now drives a taxi, a job that was supposed to be temporary but has lasted eight years. "Every day I think this is my last day as a taxi driver and that I'll find something better."

The voting irregularities may have tarnished Armenia's efforts to establish itself in international eyes as a model democracy, but equally serious, they have undermined the nation's chances of establishing broad public confidence in the electoral process.

"I know the figures that will be cited later will be rigged anyway," Tatevosyan said. "All this talk about Armenia becoming civilized and Western is just hot air from state officials. I don't believe it will ever happen."

He said he saw peaceful opposition demonstrators being beaten by police and arrested.

A 23-year-old pregnant woman, Nona Kirkoryan, described how she was arrested by police at her home and held in a cell for several hours.

"They asked me, 'Your father supports Demirchyan?' and I said that our whole family supported Demirchyan," she recounted. She said she was held until her father gave himself up.

Her father, Abram, a district sports official, said he was held at the station for five hours and then freed. The next day, he said, he got a call from his boss dismissing him because he was too close to the Demirchyan campaign.

*

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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