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Southland Sends Votes to Armenia

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 Demirchyan, the former Communist, with the hope 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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Demirchyan is in a close and heavily contested race with Robert Kocharyan, who temporarily assumed the Armenian presidency when former president Levon Ter-Petrossian resigned earlier this year. Kocharyan, an advocate of Western-style capitalism, is leading by a slim margin in Armenia while Demirchyan 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, Demirchyan emerged from the first round of balloting on March 16 with roughly 31% of the popular vote, compared with Kocharyan’s 39%, Marashlian said. Roughly 1.5 million Armenians voted March 16, with about 3,000 of those voters casting their ballots in places like Glendale and Paris and dozens of other places in many countries where a significant number of Armenian emigres live.

Polling stations were also open in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Beverly Hills. There were two in Southern California because of the region’s large Armenian community, said Anahit Stepanian, assistant to the Armenian consul general in Beverly Hills. There are around 400,000 Armenians in the Los Angeles area, she said.

“Most of the emigres in the region will vote in Glendale, however,” Stepanian said. “Most live in and around there, and that’s where most voted in March.”

The March 16 election drew 1,843 voters, according to Armen Melkonian, Armenian consul general, who expected about 2,000 voters on Monday.

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.

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Because none of the 12 original candidates received more than half of the votes earlier in March, a runoff was held Monday between the top two vote-getters.

Marashlian and others credit Demirchyan’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.”

But many are optimistic as well.

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

In Beverly Hills--where some 100 people had voted in the first four hours of balloting, roughly half as many as had voted in Glendale--the opposite sentiment was heard from Demirchyan supporters in the stark, borrowed room beneath the consul general’s offices, adorned only with the tri-color 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 Demirchyan in Beverly Hills to avoid the crowded Glendale polls.

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

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“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.

Many voters here have watched the campaigns unfold on Armenian-language cable television and in Armenian American newspapers.

According to many voters interviewed, one of the most important considerations made inside the blue-curtained voting booths was about Azerbaijan, which shares a large border and a centuries-old animosity with Armenia.

“I am very concerned about this voting, because of the possibility of war with Azerbaijan,” said Haik Toutountjian, 27, an Armenian-born clerical worker in Hollywood who voted for the former Communist leader. “Either way though, either would be better than Ter-Petrossian.”

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Ter-Petrossian was forced to resign, Marashlian said, because of a strong popular denunciation of his agreement with Azerbaijan regarding an Armenian enclave in that nation. The enclave, which looks like an island on maps of the region, is heavily populated by ethnic Armenians who want to join with Armenia.

“Ter-Petrossian made an agreement in which Armenia was granted only access to the region,” Marashlian said. “But that was so ambiguous and people are worried that Azerbaijan didn’t have to give up anything and that Armenians got nothing in the deal.”

The enclave, Nagorno-Karabakh, is a sore spot in part because for centuries the Armenia region has been carved up by other nations, from the Mongols to the Ottomans to the Soviet Union.

While many eligible Armenians are expected not to participate in the vote, according to the consulate, some Armenian Americans not eligible to vote sought ways to participate nonetheless.

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“It’s my duty to my people,” said Alisa Konanyan, 20, a political science major at the University of Southern California. “I’m a U.S. citizen so I can’t vote, but for a newly developing nation like ours, it needs the support not only among Armenian citizens, but those in the diaspora as well.”

Konanyan helped organize and run the voting center in Glendale, where an early morning crowd waited until the Armenian Society’s doors opened at 8 a.m. to vote.

* RELATED STORY: A6


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