- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2008

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Armenians vote for a new president today amid growing unease that Kosovo’s declaration of independence could increase secessionist pressure in breakaway territories in the Caucasus and other former Soviet regions.

The election could determine how far Armenia is willing to go to avoid renewed conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The struggle over that region is one of several so-called “frozen conflicts,” which also include the Trans-Dniester region of Moldova and Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia territories.

Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas in Azerbaijan have been controlled by ethnic Armenian separatists since a 1994 cease-fire ended six years of full-scale war. Some 30,000 people were killed and more than 1 million driven from their homes in the fighting. There are still sporadic clashes along Nagorno-Karabakh’s borders.

The Armenian government says Nagorno-Karabakh should be recognized as a sovereign state, while Azerbaijan says it will never cede its territory.

The election pits Armenia’s powerful prime minister, Serge Sarkisian, against former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, who led the country through the first painful years of independence from the Soviet Union and the devastating war over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The stern Mr. Sarkisian, 53, is expected to win after being groomed by outgoing President Robert Kocharian as his preferred successor and benefiting from the country’s relatively strong economic growth. Many voters associate Mr. Ter-Petrosian, 63, with the economic collapse of the 1990s.

Armenia’s location between the energy-rich Caspian Sea region and southern Europe, and its proximity to Iran, make it of strategic importance for the West and Russia.

Although the Kremlin has tried to remain neutral in the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it has close ties to separatist governments in several breakaway regions, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The two candidates differ sharply in their approach to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Mr. Sarkisian, a native of the region and a decorated war hero, appears less flexible than Mr. Ter-Petrosian, who was forced to resign in 1998 after advocating concessions. Mr. Ter-Petrosian has hinted that he could seek a compromise.

With a population of about 3.2 million, Armenia has struggled to build an economy in the wake of the 1991 Soviet collapse and in the face of blockades by neighboring Azerbaijan and its key ally Turkey.

Turkey has a stake in the dispute because it is outraged by Armenia’s efforts to win international recognition of the killing of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in the World War I-era as genocide.

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