Armenians to Vote for President

YEREVAN, Armenia -- Armenians vote for a new president Tuesday amid fears that Kosovo's declaration of independence could increase tensions in breakaway regions across the former Soviet Union.

The election pits Armenia's powerful prime minister, Serge Sarkisian, 53, against former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, 63, who led the country through the first painful years of independence from the Soviet Union and the devastating war over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The stern Sarkisian, groomed by outgoing President Robert Kocharian as his preferred successor, is expected to win, benefiting from the country's relatively strong economy. Many voters here associate Ter-Petrosian with the economic collapse of the 1990s.

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

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

The election could determine how far Armenia is willing to go to avoid renewed conflict with Azerbaijan -- which has been beefing up its military in recent years with its oil wealth -- over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The struggle over the breakaway region of Azerbaijan is one of several so-called frozen conflicts that could heat up after the declaration of independence by Serbia's breakaway province of Kosovo.

Nagorno-Karabakh and several 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.

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.