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Where true democracy is the first casualty

In ex-Soviet Armenia the ballot box is no guarantee that dissent will not be labelled terrorism, writes Andrew Higgins in Yerevan
Bagrat Sadoyan suspected something sinister - the electricity was working. It was a welcome but, on this occasion, ominous sign.

The President of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrossian, was going on television with an important announcement and, in a country forced to live mostly by candlelight, he wanted to ensure an audience wider than just the few homes and embassies equipped with emergency generators.

Late that same night the police arrived at Mr Sadoyan's Hailour news agency. They had no search warrant but carted away six computers, two fax machines, two copiers, two television sets, a paraffin-powered generator and documents. They also took away Mr Sadoyan.

Today, five months later and less than a month away from elections and a referendum on a new constitution, the metal door of the news service's basement office is chained shut. The premises - along with those of about a dozen newspapers and news organisations affiliated to a leading opposition party - are occupied night and day by police.

Mr Sadoyan is out of jail but also out of work, as are 50 of his staff: "The closer we get to elections, the less democratic Armenia becomes."

The same paradox defines politics across much of the former Soviet Union, where the 15 states that emerged from the ruins of Communism in 1991 all declare themselves democracies and periodically invite citizens to the ballot box, but often seem to be sliding in the opposite direction.

President Ter-Petrossian, an Orientalist scholar and veteran dissident, is one of the few post-Soviet leaders untainted by past service in the Communist Party apparat. His credentials, however, merely highlight the difficulty of translating democratic intentions into reality.

What he had to say on television last December came as an even bigger shock than the bonus supply of electricity. He denounced political foes as agents of a criminal conspiracy, alleged a network of terrorism and drug-running, and suspended a leading opposition party known as Dashnak.

"He has let a genie out of the bottle and it is vary hard to get it back in," said Vazgen Manoukian, the President's former prime minister and friend. "I'm not saying this is already a totalitarian state but I'm no longer sure this government is moving towards democracy."

Such fear fits a pattern of steady drift towards public disillusionment and authoritarian rule in much of the former Soviet Union. Only the three Baltic states have entirely resisted the temptation to see politics as a choice between strong-arm tactics and turmoil. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Georgia and Azerbaijan are all ruled by former Communist Party potentates of one sort or another. The rest, including Russia, have moved further but still feel the tug of old instincts.

Armenia, with a well-educated and homogeneous population (only 3 per cent of its 3.7 million people belong to other ethnic groups), was initially seen as one of the best chances for democracy - a promise reflected in its status as the second highest per capita recipient of US foreign aid.

Despite its economic misery and the brutality of a war with Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh, Armenia projected an image of relative stability and tolerance. It avoided the coups that troubled the rest of the Caucasus, the personality cults of Central Asia and the grim spectacle of tanks shelling parliament as in Moscow.

With more Armenians living abroad than in Armenia, a million of them in the US, a huge, well-heeled diaspora promised not only money and moral support but also a link with non-Soviet political traditions. The diaspora connection, however, lies at the root of what critics see as a lurch towards intolerance.

The Dashnak party suspended by Mr Ter-Petrossian is the modern-day incarnation of an organisation set up in 1890 in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, to press for what was then the distant dream of an independent Armenia. Consumed by horrific memories of past persecution, particularly the Turkish "genocide" of 1915, Dashnak is run by a secretive 14-member bureau based overseas.

In a speech to parliament last month explaining his crackdown, the President mocked Dashnak as a "105-year-old senile old man" that "is not a political party, but rather a terrorist, fascist organisation''.

Some two dozen of its members have been arrested. The authorities have compiled 18 thick volumes of evidence for a trial which they say will prove links between Dashnak and a supposed clandestine terrorist group called DRO. A date for the trial, however, has yet to be fixed.

"We want a strong state. Power must be strong to ensure the transition to market relations and democratic state," said Ara Sahakian, vice-chairman of the Armenian parliament and a loyal supporter of the governing Armenian National Party. The US has expressed mild concern about press restrictions but diplomats in Yerevan seem keen to give Mr Ter-Petrossian the benefit of the doubt, at least until the trial of the alleged terrorists.

A dangerous precedent has been set, though. "If there are terrorists let them go on trial, but why suspend the whole party?" said Samual Sahinian, a member of parliament and head of the small Liberal National Conservative Party.

"Tomorrow they might say that I'm the head of a fascist organisation. Without any proof they can close me down. What can I do? Nothing. That is the end of democracy. We are all sick with the Communist bacillus. We were all raised in this system. It is very difficult to live in a different way."