Democratic Spirit Sweeps Armenia Nationalist Parliament Head Expected to Win Presidential Election

Article excerpt

AGANUSH GASPARYAN, wearing a simple black dress with her silver hair pulled tight into a bun, emerged from polling place 201 in a school on the outskirts of this capital city with a slight smile of satisfaction.

"Now they ask the opinion of the people," the grandmother declared. "Many years ago they didn't ask us. They said, this one is going to be the leader and you go vote for him. Now we have the opportunity to choose."

Yesterday the people of this mountainous republic exercised this basic democratic right for the first time in their history. Six candidates, along with vice presidential running mates, are competing for the newly created post of president. About 2.2 million eligible voters entered booths in schools, hospitals, and even geology institutes to mark paper ballots with their choice.

The calm and relatively ordered scenes of democracy here contrast with the tumult in the republic of Georgia just to the north. There, opponents call the recently elected government a budding dictatorship, leading many to question whether democracy will survive in the republics seeking independence from the Soviet Union.

The Armenian election has not been without controversy, however. It took a supreme court decision to reinstate a candidate barred by the central election commission for errors in collecting signatures required to support his candidacy. And some candidates charge the election process has been rigged to favor Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the chairman of the parliament and the leader of the ruling Armenian National Movement. Bitter campaign debate

The campaign, which officially began on Sept. 28, has been marked as well by often bitter debate over the moderate policies of Mr. Ter-Petrosyan's nationalist government which ousted the Communists from power last year.

While pursuing independence, Ter-Petrosyan is avoiding open confrontation with the Moscow leadership. Tomorrow, for example, he will join other republican leaders in signing a treaty to form a new economic community. Last month he backed a mediation effort by Russian President Boris Yeltsin to try to resolve the bloody dispute with the neighboring Azerbaijan over the fate of the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Presidential candidate Paruyr Hayrikyan, a well-known radical nationalist, assails Ter-Petrosyan for betraying the results of a Sept. 21 referendum when about 95 percent of the population voted for independence.

The decision to join talks on an economic pact is "immoral and illegal," he says. The bearded former dissident sees no benefit in economic ties with other Soviet republics. "We are getting the crumbs of what they don't have, what they are going to ask the West for," Mr. Hayrikyan says.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict raises even sharper emotions. Hundreds have been killed and hundreds of thousands made homeless in the Armenian-Azeri battle over the fate of this territory which began in 1988. Last month Yeltsin, along with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, arranged the first face-to-face meeting of the leaders from both sides and brokered an agreement to begin talks under their joint guarantee of security.

This agreement "is capitulation on the part of Armenia," says vice presidential candidate Vahan Hovannessian, who shares the ticket of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation with actor Sos Sarkisyan.

"In order to have a political solution, we must have our own army and defense system," insists Parliament member and presidential candidate Rafael Kazaryan. …