Presidential runoff sharpens 'fateful moment' for Armenia Dissimilar candidates offer nostalgia, hope for a brighter future

March 25, 1998|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

YEREVAN, Armenia -- He's got the pompadour, the golden complexion and the easy humor that enchants a new crowd of voters with every anecdote. Karen Demirchian could almost be mistaken for Ronald Reagan, except that while the U.S. president was railing about the Evil Empire, Demirchian was helping to run it.

Demirchian, the first secretary of the Communist Party of Armenia until Mikhail S. Gorbachev pushed him aside 10 years ago for being too rooted in the past, came galloping out of the sunset last week, emerging from a decade of political oblivion to romance voters in Monday's presidential election and finish a strong second.

If he wins a runoff on Monday, it would be like Brezhnev times for these Caucasian Mountain neighbors, with Demirchian running Armenia, Geidar A. Aliyev running Azerbaijan and Eduard A. Shevardnadze running Georgia -- all first secretaries of their Communist parties in the 1970s, when Leonid I. Brezhnev presided over the Soviet Union in an era of stagnation.

But Demirchian is different, critics say. While Shevardnadze went on to become an architect of perestroika and Aliyev was learning to market oil to the West, Demirchian spent the past 10 years running a dinosaur of a Soviet turbine factory in Yerevan as if nothing had changed.

"He's so superficial," sighed Dr. Ara Khachatrian, 27, after watching Demirchian charm a crowd. "He's such a populist. I'm so disappointed in my people. They want to feel nostalgia, and nothing else."

But Armenia is far more than another disillusioned post-Communist society. This election has profound resonance, not only here but 6,000 miles away in the United States. The U.S. government badly wants a source of dependable oil from next-door Azerbaijan, and American companies are investing billions there. The United States wants stability in the region and governments more sympathetic to the West than to Moscow, where Demirchian's heart lies.

For Armenia, centuries of aspirations lie in the balance. The Armenians are an ancient people -- officially Christian since 301 -- and regard themselves as independent and freedom-loving, though long betrayed by geography. Their mountain plateau has always stood on the fringe of powerful empires, and Ottomans, czars and medieval kingdoms have taken turns holding sway. The next president will determine what kind of nation Armenia will become.

A 'crucial time'

"It's an absolutely crucial time," says Vartan Oskanian, the acting foreign minister, who looks the part of the American college professor he once was. "Everything depends on this election and who is elected the next president."

Armenia's next president must rescue the economy, determine how democratic the nation will become, negotiate what seems an impossible peace with Muslim Azerbaijan, balance the conflicting interests of neighboring Iran and far-off America, and court the favor of a world growing more interested in its enemies.

"I have experience," Demirchian, who will be 66 next month, recently assured nearly 2,000 people crowded into the Opera House. "And my age? I'm younger than Ronald Reagan was when he ran for president!"

The crowd -- young, old and in between -- loved it. And Armenians gave him 31 percent of the vote Monday.

But other voters see only the past in Demirchian and contend that the future rests with Robert Kocharian, a basketball-playing 43-year-old who has been acting president since February and prime minister before that. Kocharian, a sure-footed leader but poor speaker, won 39 percent of the vote.

Since none of the 12 candidates received a majority, a runoff is required.

"This is a fateful moment for our country," says David Shahnazarian, a physicist who got less than 1 percent of the vote despite being viewed as the most handsome candidate. "Many gloomy things are possible. And Armenia could find itself in absolute international isolation."

This is a complicated and deeply politicized part of the world. Get into a casual conversation with a bartender and within moments he'll be drawing a highly accurate geopolitical map of the region on a napkin to illustrate his thesis on destiny and power.

The most volatile place on his map is a sliver of territory within Azerbaijan called Nagorno-Karabakh, historically populated by Armenians but folded into Azerbaijan by Josef V. Stalin during the early days of the Soviet Union.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, war broke out -- officially between Karabakh and Azerbaijan, but with soldiers and supplies from Armenia. Armenia won the war; Nagorno-Karabakh operates as an independent state, but its official status remains unresolved, with Azerbaijan insisting it will never cede the territory and Armenia demanding the right of the people of Karabakh to determine their own future.

U.S. interests

The vanquished Azerbaijan is now on the way to oil wealth, and some Armenians worry that the United States, which has been a strong supporter of Armenia, is growing too interested in Azerbaijan.

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