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Armenia: Former Communist Party Boss Runs For President

Yerevan, 4 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Karen Demirchian, who led Soviet Armenia's communist party from 1974 to 1988, is one of 12 candidates running for president of Armenia.

Eight of these candidates are current or former Communist party members or officials. The election will take place on March 16.

One of the few candidates without the Communist past is former dissident Paruyr Hayrikian. He spent a total of 17 years in Soviet prisons and camps, mainly during Demirchian's rule.

Hayrikian told recently a campaign rally in Yerevan that "Brezhnev's ghost is roaming Armenia." He stopped short of mentioning Demirchian then.

Subsequently, Hayrikian talked to RFE-RL about Demirchian's candidacy and a possible victory.

"It would be a catastrophe and collapse for Demirchian personally -- the Armenian nation will not suffer any injury from this," Hayrikian says, predicting that "within half-a-year the entire Armenian nation will be on its feet demanding Demirchian's resignation."

Demirchian has recently been gaining ground, particularly among older people apparently nostalgic for the days of stability and full employment. Demirchian is believed to have a good chance of getting into the run-off.

Demirchian's campaign manager, university pro-rector Armen Khachatarian told RFE-RL that Demirchian, while in office, had actually been Armenia's "number one (anti-Soviet) dissident." He rejected journalists' queries about why Demirchian allowed writers to be jailed as "primitive."

A decade ago, Demirchian opposed the policy of glasnost or openness. Today he says the process of glasnost proceeded in Soviet Armenia in the same fashion as it did throughout the Soviet Union.

Demirchian insists the Armenian Communist leadership made no attempt to stifle glasnost -- "on the contrary", he says, "there was always glasnost in Armenia, people were always able to express themselves freely to voice what was on their minds." As an afterthought he adds, "of course there were limitations, which were completely unnatural."

Demirchian suggests some of his past experience could prove useful.

"Any experience a person has in life helps, positive and negative, but putting old (Soviet) experience to use in today's reality is nonsense " Demirchian says.

Demirchian, who will be 66 next month, is currently general director of the Hai Elektra company in Yerevan. Sitting in his spacious, paneled office, dressed in a stylish sports jacket and drawing on an imported cigarette through a silver and bone cigarette-holder, Demirchian exudes confidence, pragmatism and experience, if not power. He is a man of few words. Asked if he still believes in Marxism-Leninism, he responds that the question is "not correct."

"We lived in a country where the ideology was Marxism-Leninism. Of course we worked then on the basis of Marxist-Leninist teachings and postulates. Life changes which means one has to work on the basis of new principles," Demirchian says, describing these principles as "democracy and a free economy."

Demirchian declines to be placed anywhere on the political spectrum.

"I have always considered that dividing up the political spectrum into left and right depends on the tasks one faces -- if necessary one decides in one way, if the situation requires change then one reacts differently, so it is a dialectical moment", Demirchian says, adding that one can be leftist then rightist and then leftist again. As he puts it, "this is not a lack of principle but rather taking reality into account" .

Asked why he wants to be president, Demirchian responded again that the question is incorrect, saying people should not want to be something but rather should offer their services to society and let the nation choose and make the final verdict.

Whoever wins the Armenian presidential elections will face the difficult task of reviving negotiations about the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh and relations with Azerbaijan. Demirchian's refusal to back Karabakh Armenian demands for union with Armenia was one of the immediate causes of his downfall.

"I was always a supporter of a peaceful resolution, a just resolution based on a policy of negotiations" Demirchian says, adding that how long the talks go and when an agreement is reached depend on the good will and political will of the participants in the talks. But he rules out returning Karabakh to Azerbaijan since he says the Armenian nation would not allow this. He says it is not a territorial question but an issue of national self-determination.

The former Armenian Communist party leader says the Karabakh issue must be resolved justly to the mutual satisfaction of all sides, including Azerbaijan, since, as he puts it, "no other solution will be lasting or effective."

A Demirchian victory in the presidential elections would mean all three former Soviet republics in the Caucasus would be led by former Soviet leaders: Georgia is led by President Eduard Shevardnadze and Azerbaijan by President Heydar Aliyev.

Demirchian noted that he and Aliyev had gotten along with each other and had reached agreements as the leaders of two Soviet republics and this, he suggests, could be a positive factor in any future negotiations.