Slick old fox set for comeback in Armenia poll

Were it only a matter of looks, the man on stage could easily have stepped off a campaign bus in San Francisco. Glossy-jowled, with a Clinton haircut and a silver tongue, he is as tailored for the consumer as a Parker pen.

The 3,000 electors stuffed in the hall are lapping up every syllable. He moves smoothly from family man to elder statesman, from pal to president. Speech complete, he glides out into square outside, where he hands snowdrops to the women in the crowd before driving off in a Volga in search of more votes.

Karen Demirchian is as slick a stump performer as you are likely to find and yet his CV owes about as much to the democratic process as Noah (who wound up on top of nearby Mt Ararat) did to the electric drill.

For 14 years Mr Demirchian was Armenia's first secretary of the Communist Party until Mikhail Gorbachev kicked him out in 1988. His skill at pumping money out of his friends in Moscow is reflected in some of Yerevan's most grandiose buildings. Now, after 10 years in obscurity, he is back. And, at 65, he wants to run the place again.

The world's strategy-makers will be watching this pocket of the Trans- Caucasus as it goes to the polls today for the first round of its presidential elections. The second round, a two-man race, is expected on 30 March. Bound up with the outcome are some of the West's most pressing geopolitical interests, including Caspian oil.

Mr Demirchian's reputation is that of a party hack who surrounded himself with cronies and ruled a republic awash with corruption. He is vague on policy, especially about Nagorny Karabakh, the cause of a war with Azerbaijan which cost 25,000 lives. But he says he wants to strengthen ties with Moscow if elected. The size of his crowds and the polls suggest he might be. Western diplomats are not keen. "Stagnation," replies one when asked what the future would hold.

Yet in the few weeks since his reappearance Mr Demirchian's ratings have shot skywards, largely through popular nostalgia. Life has not been easy for Armenia. Unemployment is 45 per cent; borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed because of the Nargorny Karabakh conflict. The dayswhen people had to rip down trees for fuel are past. But so have the days when Armenia was among the Soviet Union's most prosperous republics. So, too, have plaudits from the West for pushing ahead with reform and democracy.

The 1996 election which returned Levon Ter Petrosian to power was so rigged that 40,000 people took to the streets in protest. Yet Armenia's future course remains of critical interest in the West, especially the US. Anxious to limit the influence of Moscow and Tehran over the republic, Washington has been pouring in cash.

Armenia's borders are a few miles from the planned route of a pipeline through Georgia along which most Caspian oil will eventually be piped from Azerbaijan to the West. If Yerevan tilts still further to Moscow under Mr Demirchian, the oil will flow through territory sandwiched perilously between Russia and an even more pro-Russian Armenia. It is a far from stable arrangement: Georgia's president, Eduard Shevardnadze, has twice been the subject of assassination bids.

Although it would never admit it, the US would rather see a victory by Robert Kocharian, one of three front-runners in today's poll. The Prime Minister, took charge after Mr Ter Petrosian resigned last month, the victim of outrage over his willingness to make concessions on Nagorny Karabakh. No matter that Mr Kocharian is from Nagorny Karabakh, and seems unlikely to do much to unravel that tragedy. He is generally pro-Western. He also has the support of the security forces and Defence Ministry and the Armenian diaspora.

Worries about Mr Demirchian may prove overblown. Two elderly neighbours - Gaidar Aliyev in Azerbaijan and Mr Shevardnadze - are of the same pedigree. Yet they have found favour in the West, helped by the bouquet of oil. But it will be a strange twist. The Caucasus will be dominated by three wily old ex-Communist hacks who served under Brezhnev. Who, in the euphoria of Soviet collapse, can have expected that?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?