Rebirth of Long-Lost Nation Takes Gloomy Turn

While Armenia emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union with great promise, a lengthy war with Azerbaijan and domestic instability have slowed progress and reforms

For over three millennia, Armenians have withstood everything their neighbors could throw at them - war, occupation, genocide, and worldwide dispersion - to hold their nation together. But five years after they began building a state of their own, they are floundering.

Although Armenia was one of the most promising republics to emerge from the wreckage of the Soviet Union, the country has gone from being a model of democratic stability to the brink of authoritarian cronyism.

Recent presidential elections, which incumbent Levon Ter-Petrossian narrowly won, bore the hallmarks of fraud. An opposition crowd's violent protest, tearing down the gates to parliament and beating up the Speaker, provoked harsh retribution from the secret police.

"This is all bubbling up into a very important nation-building challenge," says former foreign minister Raffi Hovannisian. "Are we going to be able to launch the country onto a new level of political pluralism, or will we continue the whirlwind downwards?"

Armenia has suffered a troubled infancy as a new nation-state. In particular, fighting with neighboring Azerbaijan over the predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh has colored every aspect of life since the conflict began five years ago.

An economic blockade by Azerbaijan has denied the country most of the oil and gas that once fueled the economy. Turkey - an Azeri ally - has closed its frontier to all trade, leaving just a 30-mile border with Iran to the south and an unreliable road and railway north into Georgia as Armenia's only routes to the outside world.

Those circumstances, combined with the rigors of free-market reform, have hurt the economy and greatly reduced job opportunities. And though the first buds of growth are beginning to bloom, more than 500,000 people - 15 percent of the population - have left the country in search of a better life.

Their numbers have swelled the Armenian diaspora from Moscow to Glendale, Calif., and they have included many of the best and the brightest. This mountainous country has only two natural resources, its inhabitants joke: rocks and brains, and brains are its only export. But the emigrants have been fleeing more than economic hardship. They complain of corruption, nepotism, and a political atmosphere that discourages challenges to the system.

Those left behind are frustrated. Lyudmila Kharoutounian, a prominent political commentator and pollster, says her pre-electoral opinion surveys this summer "showed a complete lack of trust in government, in parliament, in the courts, in everything." Such public sentiment does not bode well for the future.

Communism is no longer a force to be reckoned with in Armenia: Both Mr. Ter-Petrossian and his leading opposition rival, Vazgen Manukian, were prominent in the anti-Communist independence movement that began as the Karabakh Committee. But there are few new faces on the political scene, some voters complain.

And by resorting to a violent assault on the Parliament building to demand a re-count of the election results, opposition leaders used crowd power in the same way that it was used by independence leaders, says Ms. Kharoutounian. "They wanted to repeat history, to take power in the way they took power from the Communists," she says. "We have to put this tradition behind us if we want to be a normal country."

Hopes of more civilized democratic developments have dimmed, however. Last year, parliamentary elections that gave the president a commanding majority were deemed unfair by international observers. The presidential elections this September were marred by enough violations to engender "a lack of confidence in the integrity of the overall election process" from Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observers.

The government had already banned one of the most influential opposition parties, the left-wing Armenian Revolutionary Federation, and the postelection violence prompted the authorities to seal the offices of Mr. Manukian's National Democratic Union.

"The government wants democracy without an opposition," warns Paruir Hayrikian, head of the opposition Union for National Self Determination.

Government officials put the blame elsewhere. "We have been trying to build a democratic society but we have not been so lucky with our opposition, which has opted for violent means," claims Jirair Libaridian, Ter-Petrossian's top adviser. Opposition leaders are concerned that the government's attitude will erode their supporters' faith in democracy.

"It is clear that in Armenia it is impossible to change the authorities through elections, and it is hard to say what that will bring," says Manukian.

Hints that more radical opposition groups could resort to bombings and shootings are never far from the surface: Armenian nationalists have a long history of such violence directed at their Turkish enemies, but never at fellow Armenians.

Whatever the domestic repercussions of the recent elections, they are bound to damage the international standing of a country that relies very heavily on foreign aid and on donations from Armenians abroad. Armenia received more US aid per capita last year than any other country besides Israel.

"Armenia's image has clearly been bruised in the [US] administration and in Congress," says one Armenian lobbyist in Washington.

The trouble is also likely to complicate international efforts to negotiate a solution to the Nagorno Karabakh dispute, according to the enclave's president, Robert Kocharian.

Instead, argues Mr. Hovannisian, the former foreign minister who now runs an independent thinktank here, "Armenia is today going through a legitimacy crisis in all parts of the political spectrum. Breach [of the law] breeds breach, violence breeds violence, and it seems to me that we are creating for ourselves very dangerous precedents on the road to democracy."

Ter-Petrossian has not yet taken any of the steps that independent observers say would herald an attempt to rebuild his legitimacy, such as firing one or more of the powerful Cabinet ministers who have been accused of gross corruption.

"People generally care less about political and democracy issues than they do about the economy," says one Western diplomat. "The government may think it can finesse this situation if it can develop the economy."

In a gesture to voters suffering from a tight economic policy, the president has recently gotten rid of Prime Minister Grant Bagratian, whose reformist zeal made him unpopular among the general public.

Certainly the president's supporters do expect him to pay more attention in his second term to domestic affairs.

"We have set the outline of the state, the skeleton," says Mr. Libaridian. Over the next five years, the president "will concentrate more on strengthening all the institutions so less depends on personalities and arbitrariness is curtailed."

The problem with this, say Ter-Petrossian's critics, is that so far the president's efforts at institution building have had the opposite effect: He oversaw fraudulent elections last year that put parliament in his pocket, and he pushed through a Constitution that gives him the power to appoint and dismiss judges.

The separation of powers meant to underpin a democratic regime appears blurred, at best.

A Babylonian map of the known world 2,300 years ago included Armenia among just six other nations. Today, after a vigorous fight for political independence, victory on the military battlefield, and an effective diplomatic campaign, Armenia is firmly back on the map.

What kind of country it will turn out to be, though, remains in the balance. As one foreign diplomat put it, "I don't see how this can be anything but a watershed in Armenian politics."

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