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?