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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 19 February, 2003, 04:38 GMT
Democratic test for Armenia
Stepan Demirchyan
Chloe Arnold
BBC News in Yerevan, Armenia

Crowds in Armenia
Armenia could see its first democratic transfer of power

The polls have opened in the former Soviet republic of Armenia in a presidential election that many see as a test of how far democracy has come in this tiny Caucasus republic.

Opinion polls suggest the incumbent, Robert Kocharyan, who has led the country since 1988, is ahead of his eight rivals.

Few Armenians say they admire Mr Kocharyan, but they admit the country, wracked by war and poverty after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has regained stability in the five years he has been president.

Once one of the most prosperous of the former Soviet republics, Armenia has struggled with democracy and market reforms since gaining its independence in 1991.

A massive earthquake three years earlier left tens of thousands dead and several cities in ruins. Many of the survivors still live in temporary accommodation today.

The country remains blockaded by two of its four neighbours, Azerbaijan and Turkey, following long-standing disputes. A six-year bloody conflict with Azerbaijan that ended in a shaky ceasefire in 1994 still has not been resolved.

Troubled Economy

And unemployment is rife: factories and businesses that flourished under the Soviet regime now stand empty and almost a third of the population has emigrated in the last 10 years.

I think Mr Demirchyan has a very solid chance to become the first opposition contender in modern Armenian history to defeat an incumbent president
Raffi Hovanissian
Nevertheless, Armenians reluctantly concede that Mr Kocharyan is turning the economy around and that most homes now have electricity.

Many remember the freezing winters of the mid-1990s when there was barely more than an hour of heat and light a day.

"I will vote for Kocharyan on Wednesday," said Vazgen, a shop-keeper in the capital, Yerevan, on Tuesday. "I don't like him much, but we know him and he is the best hope we have of improving this country."

Opposition

But polls show that at least one opposition candidate has been gaining ground.

Observers say Mr Kocharyan's only real threat comes from Stepan Demirchyan, the son of a former Soviet leader of Armenia.

"I think Mr Demirchyan has a very solid chance to become the first opposition contender in modern Armenian history to defeat an incumbent president," Raffi Hovannisian, the founder of the Armenia Centre for National and International Studies, told the BBC.

If none of the candidates gains at least 50% of the votes in Wednesday's poll, the election will go to a run-off between the two candidates with the most ballots on 5 March.

Polling stations close at 2000 (1600 GMT) on Wednesday and the first results are expected a few hours later.



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SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Armenia
12 Feb 03 |  Country profiles
Armenia in mourning
29 Oct 99 |  Europe


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