(Continued from the preceding issue). No fewer than eleven candidates are challenging Acting President Robert Kocharian today in the first round of Armenia’s presidential election. Most candidates’ platforms resemble each other — as well as Kocharian’s — in most of their points. Vying with one another in economic populism, they promise: higher salaries and pensions and their regular disbursement; restoration of some state-financed social benefits; tax relief for business, coupled with a hoped-for expansion of the tax base into the "shadow" economy; state subsidies for industrial recovery, job creation, and farm support; protectionism and export-boosting at the same time; eradicating the "clan" phenomenon (commonly blamed on the Armenian Pan-National Movement, which lost power last month) from government, the economy and the civil service; reversing the economic outmigration from Armenia; stronger relations with diaspora Armenians and introduction of dual citizenship for them.
With regard to the Karabakh conflict, the candidates in near-unison pledge to strive for international acceptance of Karabakh’s right to self-determination and its secure existence outside Azerbaijani control. They want Karabakh to negotiate with Azerbaijan a "package" settlement (trading occupied lands for legal and political status) in the existing framework of OSCE’s Minsk Group. Outright unification of Karabakh with Armenia is no longer on any official program (that unification was proclaimed in December 1989, was never rescinded, and forms a legal argument for Karabakh resident Kocharian’s eligibility to be president of Armenia). The electorate is concerned about Karabakh’s safety; but is also growing uneasy over the seemingly open-ended conflict, the sacrifices it entails, and the risk of another war.
On foreign policy, most candidates (the few exceptions are noted below) try to square the circle by promising to maintain and/or strengthen relations with Russia, the United States and Western Europe, habitually mentioned in that order. But such balance has become increasingly elusive because of Armenia’s — and Karabakh’s — military dependence on Russia and the latter’s opposition to Western interests in the region. Most candidates implicitly recognize those constraints by listing Russia first in the list of foreign policy priorities and describing it as Armenia’s "strategic ally."
The similarities of most platforms means that the candidates — Kocharian as well as his challengers — will ultimately be judged on the basis of personality, image, past record, and current political alliances. In the absence of credible polling data, local observers predict that today’s first round will be inconclusive, necessitating a runoff. (This preview draws on Armenian media coverage of the presidential campaign. For a profile of Kocharian see Monitor, March 12)
The Principal Challengers.