Thousands Protest Armenian Result

APArmenian opposition leader Levon Ter-Petrosyan gesturing as he addesses his supporters Wednesday in Yerevan.
YEREVAN, Armenia -- Thousands of opposition supporters streamed to a protest in Armenia's capital Wednesday after election officials said complete results showed that Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan won the presidential election.

An initial count of the ballots cast nationwide showed that Sargsyan had nearly 53 percent of the vote in Tuesday's election, Central Election Commission chief Garegin Azaryan said -- enough to win outright and avoid a runoff. Top opposition candidate Levon Ter-Petrosyan had 21.5 percent, Azaryan said.

Ter-Petrosyan's backers have alleged widespread fraud, and a crowd that swelled to more than 15,000 gathered in a central Yerevan square to protest the results. The election commission headquarters, a five-minute walk from the square, was cordoned off by metal barriers and a few dozen helmeted riot police with truncheons stood guard outside. Police patrolled streets near the protest.

A senior Ter-Petrosyan aide, Nikol Pashinyan, urged the crowd to stand up for justice.

"It would be a crime on our part to leave the country to this criminal regime," Pashinyan said.

Sargsyan was groomed by outgoing President Robert Kocharyan and was widely expected to win, in part because of favorable media coverage and support from the state bureaucracy. He has also benefited from economic improvements in recent years.

Ter-Petrosyan accused the authorities of resorting to ballot-stuffing, vote-buying and beating election monitors. He asserted that he was actually the winner.

"These figures have nothing to do with reality. We are overwhelmingly ahead of them," his spokesman, Arman Museyan, said of the results announced by the election commission.

A candidate needed to garner more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.

The allegations of fraud and threats of mass protests raised concerns over instability in the volatile, strategic country at the juncture of the energy-rich Caspian Sea region, southern Europe and bordering Iran.

"I have no doubt that the authorities have falsified the election, and I will protest with all those who also feel cheated," Simon Grigoryan, a 38-year-old engineer, said at the protest.

An observer mission from Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the election was "mostly in line with" international commitments.

"Further improvements are necessary to address remaining challenges," the OSCE observers said in a statement.

Sargsyan and Ter-Petrosyan, Armenia's first president after the 1991 Soviet collapse, were the two top contenders vying to lead the South Caucasus nation, where more than one-quarter of its 3.2 million people live in poverty, despite some economic progress in recent years.

The election campaign was dominated by the country's economic revival and efforts to resolve the status of Nagorno-Karabakh -- a mountainous region in neighboring Azerbaijan that has been under ethnic Armenian control since a cease-fire ended six years of fighting in 1994.

Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia on Sunday added an element of uncertainty for Armenians, many of whom see clear analogies between Kosovo and Nagorno-Karabakh.

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