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Armenia: Political Changes Set Stage For Fairest Elections Since 1991

By Armen Doulian

Prague, 11 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Armenia holds its second post-Soviet parliamentary elections on May 30.

Following three elections since 1995 in which the results were contested, observers and voters alike hope the coming vote will provide a measure of legitimacy and stability.

In the past 14 months, the political landscape has changed dramatically.

In February last year, an alliance made up of then-Prime Minister Robert Kocharian, Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian and Internal and National Security Minister Serge Sargsian ousted the first post-Soviet president Levon Ter-Petrossian. It was a constitutional coup, in which the defense minister's role was pivotal. His base of support included the army and the "Association of the Protectors of the Land," or Yerkrapah, made up of veterans of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh and others hoping to carve out a political role.

After the coup, when Kocharian was elected president, it was widely expected he would disband the controversially elected parliament and help the Yerkrapah take power.

But a year later, a different picture has emerged. Independent of Kocharian and through the efforts of the defense minister, the Yerkrapah has won influence outside of the presidency and may no longer need the president for its support.

Vazgen Sargsian has every reason to be proud. In one year, not only has he been able to turn the Yerkrapah into a strong political organization, he has also managed to strike a pre-election deal with popular former Soviet Armenian leader Karen Demirchian, creating a strong election bloc called "Miasnootiun" (Unity).

This is a major change. For the first time in eight years, the biggest winner in the elections may well be a political force that does not follow the president. Some even say the Sargsian-Demirchian alliance offers a new ticket for Armenia: both a president and a prime minister.

It's not known whether Sargsian wants to be president. A candidate for parliament told our correspondent recently that when he urged Sargsian to think about the presidency last year, Sargsian dismissed the idea. The bearded former guerrilla leader reportedly responded by saying: "Try to picture [Azerbaijan President Heydar] Aliyev, and now try to picture [Georgian President Eduard] Shevardnadze ... do I fit that picture?" He answered his own question with a "No".

But everyone knows Demirchian would perfectly fit in that picture. In fact Aliyev, Shevardnadze and Demirchian are former colleagues -- each having served as the first secretary of his country's Communist party in the 1970s and '80s.

Yerkrapah's electoral success is not yet guaranteed. If other parties can win a sufficient number of seats in the parliament, they could still block the new alliance from gaining control.

In the past few months, at least three new parties have emerged that could win a respectable number of seats. Their sudden rise is attributed in part to support from the Internal and National Security Minister Serge Sargsian. Together with the votes that the more traditional parties, the "Dashnaks", the National Democratic Union and the Communists, will receive, the Unity bloc may well be denied an outright victory.

The political changes have not only reduced the influence of the president, they have also set the stage for the fairest elections since 1991. This would mark a major step forward in the democratization process that had a strong start in the early 1990s and then stalled amid war, economic hardship and strains of authoritarianism.