Armenia leader: Canny chess player with soldier's steel

Armenia's President Serzh Sarkisian derives much of his popularity from a strongman image as a veteran of the war with Azerbaijan but is also a chess fanatic whose canny foreign policy resembles moves on a chess board.

Sarkisian's militaristic background is seen as the prime explanation for the popularity which is expected to see him win Monday's presidential poll, being held at a time of fresh tension with its neighbourhood foe Azerbaijan.

Sarkisian, 59, was born in Nagorny Karabakh itself, the lushly beautiful region that translates as Black Garden but was the scene of a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union fell that left 30,000 people dead.

He held top military posts in the war, including the head of the Karabakh defence committee and won respect for refusing to evacuate his family out of the main Karabakh town of Stepanakert where they hid in cellars to suffer the daily bombardments along with everyone else.

"People in Armenia are of course not unanimous about Sarkisian. But his most positive characteristics, that all are agreed on, are that he fought, he went through the war and he is one of the founders of the Armenian army," the director of the Armenian sociological association Gevorg Pogosian told AFP.

After Armenia's independence, Sarkisian held top government posts including defence minister and interior minister before becoming prime minister in 2007.

He became Armenia's third president in 2008 but the victory was tarnished by bloody clashes between the security forces and supporters of former president Levon Ter-Petrosian that left 10 people dead.

Analysts credit Sarkisian with healing the wounds of society since then by showing a streak of pragmatism that has contrasted with the often stubborn defiance of his predecessor Robert Kocharian.

Persistent corruption and the influence of powerful oligarchs in his circle has also cast a shadow over his rule, and he has vowed not to run in the 2018 election.

Sarkisian is a fanatical chess player who heads the Armenia chess federation and who has overseen a stunning development of the sport in the country, with Armenians frequently winning top competitions and mobbed as heroes on their return home.

He is fond of stating that chess moves are sometimes useful in politics and he has needed to use all his cunning to ensure a strong foreign policy for the small Christian country surrounded by much more powerful neighbours.

Under his rule, Armenia has managed the unlikely feat of having a strategic partnership with its former Soviet master Russia while deepening ties with the EU, NATO and the United States as well as keeping a conspicuously warm friendship with its giant Islamic neighbour Iran.

Less successful have been cautious attempts to forge ties with its foe Turkey -- a hugely risky strategy given the opposition within the 10 million strong Armenian diaspora who want the World War I mass killings of Armenians termed worldwide as a genocide carried out by the Ottoman Empire.

The Nagorny Karabakh war left the Azerbaijani territory controlled by Armenian separatists who declared a breakaway state almost exclusively populated by Armenians that is backed, although not formally recognised, by Yerevan.

With the Baku defence budget wallowing in petrodollars and President Ilham Aliyev inclined to bellicose rhetoric, Sarkisian has vowed to strike back with massive retaliation should Azerbaijan seek to take the region by force.