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Armenian Americans Vote in Homeland Races

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It would have to be an extremely close vote for Marina Atshemyan’s ballot to sway Monday’s Armenian presidential election, which pitted a former Communist Party leader against the nation’s acting president.

Atshemyan, who was born in Armenia 24 years ago but recently moved to Glendale, voted for Karen Demirchian, the former communist, with the hope that her vote would help make the difference anyway.

“I know our votes here are small in comparison with voters in Armenia, but this is a very important election,” she said, moments after dropping her ballot into a heavy wooden box in the Glendale office of the Armenian Society of Los Angeles, one of two Southern California sites where Armenian emigres could flex their electoral muscle.

“Our country is in a crisis now,” she said. “We need to participate and stay involved. And vote.”

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Demirchian is in a close and heavily contested race with Robert Kocharian, who temporarily assumed the Armenian presidency when former president Levon Ter-Petrossian resigned earlier this year. Kocharian, an advocate of Western-style capitalism, is leading by a slim margin in Armenia while Demirchian has a lead abroad, among Armenians of the diaspora--those scattered around the world--according to the Armenian Consulate in Los Angeles.

“The diasporan vote won’t sway this one way or another unless it’s a very close vote,” said Levon Marashlian, a Glendale Community College instructor of Armenian history and United States government.

“But what’s interesting is the former communist is growing more popular. The symbol of the old, Soviet ways is doing better than many would have thought.”

Indeed, Demirchian emerged from the first round of balloting on March 16 with about 31% of the popular vote, compared with Kocharian’s 39%, Marashlian said. Because none of the 12 original candidates received more than half of the votes, a runoff was held Monday between the earlier round’s top two vote-getters.

About 1.5 million Armenians voted in March, with about 3,000 of those voters casting their ballots in places like Glendale and Paris and dozens of other cities around the world where a measurable number of Armenian emigres live. There are about 400,000 Armenians in the Los Angeles area, said Anahit Stepanian, assistant to the Armenian consul general in Beverly Hills.

Because Armenia, a republic of 3.5 million people created in 1991 after the Soviet Union splintered, does not recognize dual citizenship, U.S. citizens of Armenian descent cannot vote, Stepanian said. Several of those voting Monday said they intend eventually to return to Armenia.

Marashlian and others credit Demirchian’s growing popularity to Armenia’s increasingly unstable economy.

Although communism afforded Armenians virtually no choice in their leadership, it provided minimal wages and housing to everyone, Marashlian said. “With capitalism coming in slowly and painfully, people are no longer guaranteed those things, and many are frightened about the future.”

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But many are optimistic as well.

“It’s my decision who I vote for and it’s Kocharian,” said Arshak Karagezyan, 62, who was born in Armenia. “He’s young and smart.”

In Beverly Hills the opposite sentiment was heard from Demirchian supporters in the stark, borrowed room beneath the consul general’s offices, adorned only with the tricolor Armenian flag.

“There is this old Armenian saying that the sour yogurt is better than the fresh yogurt,” said Knarik Ter-Gevorkyan of Glendale. She and her husband, Michael Ter-Gevorkyan, both cast their votes for the communist Demirchian.

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But youth, not just familiarity, was also an important electoral consideration, explained Hakob Topachikyan, 24, who voted for Kocharian.

“I think he’s young, and that’s an asset, and he can decide more wisely and more quickly what is needed for the future of the country,” he said.

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* ON THE LOOKOUT IN ARMENIA: International monitors watch voting and ballot-counting two weeks after a marred first round. A6

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