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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 5 March, 2003, 05:55 GMT
Poverty-hit Armenia yearns for change
By Natalia Antelava
in Yerevan, Armenia

Supporters of challenger Stepan Demirchyan
Many Armenians think it is time for change
Alongside the highway leading from Georgia to the Armenian capital, Yerevan, lies a string of deserted villages and abandoned towns.

In a decade of independence from the Soviet Union this tiny landlocked nation has suffered one of the world's most dramatic population declines.

It's estimated that more than a million people have left the country in search of a better life overseas - out of a population that was never more than 3.8 million.

Yerevan itself is at first glance strikingly different from the rest of the desolate, mountainous country.

In the last few years many members of Armenia's foreign diaspora - twice as large as the population of the country itself - have come back to open businesses here.

Today, the streets of Yerevan are full of Western-style bars, cafes and restaurants.

But only select few can afford a dinner in a sushi bar in downtown Yerevan, where one mouthful may cost a week's salary for the average Armenian.

Poverty

Half the population still lives below the poverty line, unemployment is rampant and official corruption is widespread.

Waiting for well-off customers outside the Japanese restaurant is a taxi driver Ashot Torosyan.

Kocharyan has done nothing for people at all - things have got worse
Ashot Torosyan,
taxi driver
He says that his salary of $30 a month is nowhere near enough to feed his family of four.

Like many Armenians, he says a new leader is needed to lift the country out of poverty.

On Wednesday, along with thousands of others he will be voting in the second round of the presidential election, in which the incumbent president Robert Kocharyan faces a tough challenge from opposition leader Stepan Demirchyan.

"Kocharyan has done nothing for people at all. Things have got worse. And Demirchyan is a young, working man, I think he will be good for this country," Mr Torosyan said.

Parliament killings

Stepan Demirchyan's father, Karen, was Armenia's Communist Party boss in Soviet times, and later became chairman of the Armenian parliament - and one of nine MPs murdered in a notorious 1999 parliamentary massacre.

The government's failure to resolve the case is another grievance that some voters hold against it.

Stepan Demirchyan himself is a newcomer to politics, but in the past two weeks thousands of Armenians have taken to the streets of Yerevan to show their support for him and to protest against alleged fraud in the first round of the election on 19 February.

The official result put Mr Kocharyan in first place with 49.8% of the vote.
Robert Kocharyan with supporters
Mr Kocharyan came well ahead in the first round

The arrest of some 150 demonstrators by the authorities last week has only increased the bitterness.

"Many people are going to leave this country because they don't have anything to do here any more," said Arsen Horosyan, a 21-year-old student.

"There has been a lot of cheating, but today we don't really have independent mass media in Armenia and so we cannot tell this to the people," he added.

"We all voted for Demirchyan. They rigged the elections. People are dying of poverty in this country, and the government is not letting us choose," said one demonstrator.

Many see this election as a test of democracy in Armenia.

If Mr Demirchyan wins, they fear Mr Kocharyan may not be willing to give up power peacefully.




SEE ALSO:
Armenian election race hots up
21 Feb 03 |  Europe
Armenia poll goes to run-off
20 Feb 03 |  Europe
Democratic test for Armenia
19 Feb 03 |  Europe
Country profile: Armenia
12 Feb 03 |  Country profiles
Armenians say US failed them
26 Jan 03 |  Correspondent


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