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.
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. ''If there is any proof, why haven't they shown it to us during these past five months?'' he asks. Instead, he continues, the defendants have been denied access to their lawyers, one of whom at least was also beaten by unknown assailants.
''This is just a reflection of political struggle,'' the Dashnak parliamentarian charges. ''The elections were approaching, and they just tried to neutralize their Dashnak opponents.''
The government's charges are not without credibility. The Dashnak is Armenia's oldest party, going back to the 19th century. But after establishment of Soviet rule, it has largely existed in the 1-million-strong Armenian diaspora. Organized as a Leninist-style party with tight internal discipline, the Dashnak kept the hope of Armenian independence alive. According to numerous reports, confirmed by US officials, the Dashnak also maintained a terrorist group, the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide, which carried out attacks in the 1970s and '80s on Turks and its other foes around the world.
The Dashnaks returned to Armenia, but the party remains under the leadership of diaspora Armenians. It was highly active in the fighting in Karabakh, including providing smuggled arms.
''I know such an organization exists, that the Dashnaks carried out assassinations,'' says Ashot Manucharian, the former national security chief but now a powerful opponent of Ter-Petrosyan's government.
But he contends the government did not move against the party because of crime. Instead, he says, criminal charges were used as an excuse to ban the party.
At the same time, though, Dashnak rejected offers that would have allowed them to run as a de facto party, but in a coalition with other opposition groups. ''If we join the election as a party, by hook or by crook, we wouldn't be able to state that the image of Levon Ter-Petrosyan as democrat is a myth,'' says party spokesman Bagrat Sadoyan. Instead Dashnak members will run in every district as individuals.
But all opposition groups agree that the fairness of the election remains in doubt. They point to a systematic effort to control the election commissions, using rough if not illegal tactics.
One such case occurred on an April 30 vote for a commission chairman in Yerevan's fourth district. The vote was split between a member of the ruling ANM party and an opposition Dashnak party member, Yura Melkonian. Mr. Melkonian and another commission member were later beaten by a group of men led by an ANM member of parliament, according to Melkonian and witnesses.
There also has been serious pressure on independent papers, including a recent move by the state-run publishing house, to block publication of Golus Armenia newspaper, a forum for many opposition views.
Some observers suggest that the president has lost control of the ruling ANM party and other parts of his government. There the old Soviet-era power structure still holds sway. ''The ANM upper leadership are more civilized, Western-minded people, but as you go lower down, you have what you had,'' says presidential spokesman Levon Zurabyan.
The president indirectly indicated his awareness last week that the situation may have gotten out of control.
He intervened to restore publication of Golus Armenia and fired David Shahnazarian, the most powerful official in charge of internal security affairs, after the death in prison of one of the Dashnak detainees, apparently from lack of medicial attention.
What follows this move is still not clear, but the ultimate test will be in the July vote, which will be closely watched by some 2,000 invited foreign observers.
* Next in this series: ethnic conflict in the Caucasus, focusing on Nagorno-Karabakh.