Old rivalries flare up ahead of Armenian presidential vote

(dpa) - In the Armenian presidential elections on Tuesday, incumbent Robert Kocharian is expected to relinquish power after 10 years at the helm to his successor Prime Minister Serzh Sarkasian.

But as election day nears, opposition rallies have drawn larger crowds onto the streets, suggesting that all may not be settled in the first round of voting, upsetting the current Armenian leadership and its Russian backers.

The landlocked post-Soviet state cradled in the Caucasus Mountains is in a volatile region that raises red flags both for questions of national security and as a potential transit route for oil exports from the Caspian Sea to the West.

Armenia's first pipeline, which carries oil from Iran, is eyed by Russian energy giant Gazprom as well as neighbouring Georgia because it provides an alternative to Russian gas.

But economic interests in the region are overshadowed by unresolved conflicts with neighbouring Azerbaijan and Turkey, which are complicated by third-party alliances with Russia and the West.

The election frontrunner's fiercest challenge came when former president Levon Ter-Petrosian announced his comeback from a 10-year absence from politics at a rally that drew between 12,000 and 20,000 people to the capital Yerevan's main square.

Ter-Petrosian's chances at a run-off grew after an endorsement Tuesday from the opposition candidate Raffi Hovannisian, who withdrew as the candidate for the small Heritage Party.

But according to a survey by British pollster Populus a day earlier, opposition candidate Artur Baghdasarian narrowly was leading Ter-Petrosian with 13.4 per cent while Hovannisian had 7.6 per cent among a field of nine presidential contenders.

The poll showed 50.7 per cent voting for Sarkasian, just over the mark for first-round victory.

Kocharin, who is barred from a third term, has repeatedly declared his favourite's de-facto victory - raising hackles that the vote will not be clean.

Allegations of harassment and criticism of international election monitors have thrown a blanket on the campaign spoiling the memory of his popular election to power after forcing Ter-Petrosian's resignation in 1998.

Ter-Petrosian's equally-boisterous speeches, meanwhile, have been attacked by government supporters for verging on plans for a coup.

Rumours that Ter-Petrosian had unspoken US backing have drawn comparisons to the so-called Colour Revolutions in neighbouring post- Soviet states that saw pro-Western candidates overthrow Russian allied governments in Ukraine and Georgia.

The United States has sought to expand its influence in the region and has butted against Russia's military presence in the small nation, strategically located between the oil-rich Caspian and Black Seas in the volatile Caucasus region.

But in a battle pitting Kocharin's tapped successor against his predecessor, Armenian political analysts say memories of winters with chronic power cuts during the early 1990s will play against today's frustration with perceived corruption and lack of reforms.

The harshest campaign exchanges have also heated up Armenia's long-standing tensions with Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorni Kharabakh occupied by Armenia - which last came to a head when Ter-Petrossian was ousted.

The current Armenian president and prime minister have been dubbed "the Kharabakh Clan" after their origins and promise Armenia's continued presence in the region, while Ter-Petrossian is thought to be more willing to compromise.

Thomas Gomart, head of the Russian/CIS programme at Paris-based Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, voiced concern over the "evolution of the rhetoric."

"The disproportion in the two countries' military spending is worrying," he stressed, saying that Azeri's expenditure could be compared to the total Armenian budget.

Observers also fear election instability could aggravate Turkey, whose denial of the Armenian genocide under the Ottoman Empire has led to a rift in relations.

Armenia's large diaspora in Europe, mainly in France, and in the United States has lobbied hard for recognition of the genocide by their governments, which has stalled Turkey's EU accession talks.

Facing blockades on two borders, Armenia is dependent on international aid and remittances from its large diaspora.

Such external lobbies will turn disproportionate attention to the upcoming vote, which will test democracy in the young state.

The US and EU have threatened to withdraw aid hinging on the fairness of Tuesday's vote, which will be monitored by over 400 international observers.

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