Democracy Teeters in Three Ex-Soviet States First of Four Articles on the Caucasus Nations: Armenia, Once a Leading Reformer among Post-Soviet States, Struggles with Building and Sustaining a Democracy. Series: THE CAUCASUS NATIONS. First of Four Articles on the Caucasus Nations

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AMONG the former Soviet republics, the tiny Transcaucasian nation of Armenia has stood out as an island of democratic reform.

But as it prepares to elect its first parliament after independence and vote on a new constitution in July, Armenian democracy is showing serious cracks.

A leading opposition party has been banned, on as yet unproven charges of sponsoring terrorism, along with it a dozen newspapers and news organizations. Violent methods are being used to gain control over the election commissions. And opposition parties charge the draft constitution will create a super-presidency, unfettered by either the parliament or an independent judiciary.

A two-week tour through the three now-independent nations of the Transcaucasus revealed similar, and even more serious, failures to install democratic systems.

Georgia, under the leadership of former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, has made progress in recent months in bringing some stability, by curbing private armies and mafia gangs. But there are still political assassinations and reports of human rights abuses. Democratic hopes are now focused on plans to hold a referendum on a new constitution, and presidential and parliamentary elections.

In neighboring Azerbaijan, conditions for democracy are even more tenuous. The government of former Communist leader Heidar Aliyev has survived several coup attempts, and parliamentary elections may be held this fall. But members of opposition parties have little media access, are barred from holding large meetings, and are under constant threat of arrest.

Although they are no more severe, Armenia's problems are more troubling because it has been relatively more successful at democracy, not less. It was in the forefront of reform, starting in 1990 when the nationalist Armenian National Movement (ANM) ousted the Communist Party in the republic's first free elections. Under the leadership of former dissident and scholar Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Armenia has pursued vigorous reforms.

Recently, the pace of reform slowed, largely because of a long war with neighboring Azerbaijan. Many ANM leaders have defected to the opposition, charging corruption and political distance from the populace.

Armenia's relative internal peace was shattered last Dec. 17 when former Yerevan Mayor Ambartsum Galstyan, a founder of the ANM who had gone over to the opposition, was assassinated outside his home.

On Dec. 28, President Ter-Petrosyan made a speech charging that a secret terrorist group was organized within a main opposition party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, known as the Dashnak Party. Based on a four-month investigation, including seized documents, he banned the party. Some 22 party members were arrested and charged with the assassination and other crimes.

'Seems antidemocratic'

The ban was later changed to a six-month suspension, a period effectively barring them from participation as a party, though not as individuals, in the July 5 election. But a scheduled trial has yet to begin, and the government has not yet aired substantial proof of its allegations.

"Our step, if looked at from the outside, seems very antidemocratic," Ter-Petrosyan acknowledged in an exclusive interview with the Monitor, his first since these events. "To ban a party, to close party newspapers -- and at that, done by a person who has a democratic image -- it is inexplicable.

"But whether they want to believe it or not, by this very step I am saving democracy in Armenia from terrorism, which I regard as the greatest danger for all young democracies. {The Dashnak} is not a party. It is a terrorist organization," he said.

Seiran Baghdasarian, leader of Dashnak's parliamentary faction, whose activities are not affected by the suspension, vigorously denies that a terrorist underground exists. …


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