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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Armenians Set to Vote In Presidential Runoff

YEREVAN, Armenia -- Armenians, mired in poverty seven years after independence, vote Monday in a presidential election seen as pivotal for democracy in the former Soviet republic and for peace in the oil-rich Caspian region.

The winner of the runoff between Robert Kocharyan, prime minister and acting president, and reborn former Communist Karen Demirchyan, will have to tackle an intractable decade-old conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan.

The battlefields have been quiet since a 1994 truce, but the unresolved war over the enclave of Nagorny Karabakh looms ominously over Azerbaijan's plans to develop its offshore Caspian Sea oil fields.

Western oil companies have pledged to invest billions in Azerbaijan, but diplomats see Karabakh, where some 35,000 people have been killed, as a left-over powder keg that could destabilize the whole of the Caucasus region.

Kocharyan won 39 percent of the vote in a first round March 16 and Demirchyan 31 percent, ahead of 10 other candidates. They were forced into Monday's runoff because neither won an outright majority.

Foreign observers criticized the first-round vote as deeply flawed, a charge that has further hurt Armenia's image abroad following fraud-tainted polls in 1995 and 1996.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has 110 observers monitoring Monday's vote, demanded the runoff be much cleaner or said it would not recognize it as valid.

OSCE observers blame Kocharyan's supporters for most of the abuses, including stuffing ballot boxes and intimidating voters. They have also criticized media bias.

The election will replace Levon Ter-Petrosyan, forced to resign last month by detractors, led by Kocharyan, who opposed concessions toward Azerbaijan that he advocated to end the war.

First unofficial results are expected Tuesday morning. The winning candidate will receive a five-year term.

Latest opinion polls, thought reliable by Western diplomats, show Demirchyan leading 50 percent to 35 percent over Kocharyan, with 15 percent undecided.

A charismatic public speaker with slicked-back hair, Demirchyan ran Armenia in the '70s and '80s as its Soviet leader. He has been out of politics for the past decade, which he spent running one of Armenia's largest industrial plants.

Demirchyan, 65, stirs feelings of nostalgia for the more predictable and prosperous life associated with his former rule. Many voters in the landlocked country of 4 million also say they value his experience and managerial skills.

He has abandoned his Communist past but signals he favors a more gradual approach to radical market reforms. Western diplomats in the capital, Yerevan, say Demirchyan, once close to Azeri President Heidar Aliyev, might be better placed to compromise over Karabakh than Kocharyan.

The enclave, mostly populated by ethnic Armenians, broke away from Azeri rule in the 1980s and demanded to be put under Yerevan's control.

Kocharyan, 43, opposes compromise on Karabakh and rejects an OSCE plan calling for it to get de facto sovereignty within Azeri borders.