Armenians go to polls shadowed by Kosovo

YEREVAN, Armenia &

Armenia's main opposition candidate alleged widespread violations in a presidential election today shadowed by tension with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The two top contenders among nine candidates were powerful Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian and former President, Levon Ter-Petrosian, vying to lead this poor South Caucasus nation, where more than a quarter of the population lives in poverty despite some economic progress over the last decade.

The economy and resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have been the main issues of the campaign.

But Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia on Sunday added an element of uncertainty for Armenians, many of whom see clear analogies between Kosovo and Nagorno-Karabakh &

a mountainous region in Azerbaijan that has been under the control of ethnic-Armenian forces since a 1994 cease-fire ended a bloody six-year conflict.

The Armenian government says Nagorno-Karabakh should be recognized as a sovereign state, while Azerbaijan says it will never cede its territory.

The two presidential candidates differ on how to handle Nagorno-Karabakh.

Sarkisian, a native of the region, appears less likely to compromise than Ter-Petrosian, who was forced to resign as president in 1998 after advocating concessions in the dispute.

Sarkisian, 53, was widely seen as the front-runner, having been groomed by outgoing President Robert Kocharian. He has also received favorable media coverage, and has the state bureaucracy at his service, as well as the momentum of his government's agenda.

Ter-Petrosian, 63, hoped to return to the presidency, which he occupied after Armenia won independence in the Soviet collapse.

Armenia, with a population of about 3.2 million, is located at the juncture of the energy-rich Caspian Sea region and southern Europe. This and its proximity to Iran make it of strategic importance for the West and Russia.

The United States &

where much of Armenia's diaspora lives &

has poured some $1.7 billion in aid into Armenia since 1991, encouraging economic and political liberalization.

Casting his vote in central Yerevan, Ter-Petrosian asserted there had been "hundreds, thousands of violations."

"According to my information, very dirty things are being done," he said.

Ter-Petrosian spokesman Arman Museian said dozens of his supporters had been beaten by pro-government activists on Today, and he alleged widespread cases of ballot-stuffing and vote-buying.

A Ter-Petrosian activist who monitored voting in Abovian, a town outside Yerevan, said she was beaten early Today by a group of people who identified themselves as Sarkisian campaign activists after she tried to protest violations at a polling station.

"It is not an election, it's a seizure of power," said Larisa Torosian, who had bruises around her left eye.

A candidate has to secure more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.

Retired artist Gevorg Oganesian, 79, said he voted for Sarkisian because of economic improvements under his government.

"He has already accomplished so much &

he has raised our pensions; if he could do that, he will do everything else," Oganesian said after he emerged from a polling station in central Yerevan.

Other voters, however, saw Ter-Petrosian as offering a chance to return to the optimistic days following independence.

"He was our first president, he gave us independence. He wants his people to live a normal life," said Dzhon Karapetian, 30, a water polo player who voted for Ter-Petrosian.

The Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is one of four so-called "frozen conflicts" in the former Soviet Union following separatist wars. Many fear Kosovo's example may encourage the rebel regions and spark new fighting.

The Kremlin &

outraged by some Western countries' recognition of Kosovo's independence &

has been more neutral in the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh than in the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Moldova's rebel province of Trans-Dniester, with which it has close ties.

Armenia is eligible for millions more in U.S. aid, but the money is contingent upon political reforms, and a questionable election could jeopardize Washington's support.

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