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Armenia: Voting Gets Under Way In Presidential Poll

Yerevan, 19 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Voting is under way in Armenia, where people are electing their president for the next five years. Nine candidates are vying for the post, including incumbent Robert Kocharian. Opinion polls show that he is likely to garner more than the 50 percent of the vote needed to win an outright, first-round victory. Kocharian's main rivals should be Artashes Geghamian, communist-era mayor of Yerevan, and Stepan Demirchian, son of Soviet-era leader Karen Demirchian, who challenged Kocharian in the 1998 election.

Some 200 international observers are monitoring the vote. Lord Russell Johnston, who leads a Council of Europe observation team, said he had been assured by election officials that the election will be the best Armenia has ever had.

Correspondents say the West is watching the election to see how the winner will tackle the protracted Nagorno-Karabakh dispute with neighboring Azerbaijan. In 1988, the Armenians in the enclave declared independence, which sparked a six-year conflict that has left 35,000 dead and a million people homeless. A shaky cease-fire has been in place since 1994.

Correspondents say that for voters in Armenia, however, Karabakh is likely a secondary issue outweighed by low living standards. Average monthly wages in Armenia amount to about $40.