The United States has expressed concern about the future of democratic reforms in Armenia, saying that the suspension of the nation's largest opposition party "runs counter to the established principles of democracy and free speech."
Armenian President Levon A. Ter-Petrosyan outlawed the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, better known as the Dashnak party, on Dec. 28, after accusing the party of terrorism, extortion and other crimes. The Armenian Supreme Court reduced Ter-Petrosyan's indefinite ban to a six-month suspension in a Jan. 13 ruling.
"We urge the Armenian government and the Dashnak party to begin without delay a dialogue aimed at permitting the Dashnaks to conduct the legitimate political activities, including the publication of newspapers, essential to a democratic state," said a statement recently released by the U.S. Embassy in the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
Until now, the West had considered Armenia the best hope for democracy in Russia's volatile Caucasus region, where Russian troops are fighting Chechen rebels, Georgia is wrangling with Abkhazian separatists, and Armenians and Azerbaijanis have been battling over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh for six years.
The ban on the Dashnaks and the expulsion of an American citizen, Abraham Boghigian of Glendale, who sits on the party's ruling body, raise troubling questions about the depth of Armenia's commitment to democratic principles, according to leaders of the Armenian community in the United States.
"If a country like Armenia can pull away from a democratic path, which hopefully it will not but it's starting to do, who knows where this is going?" asked Mourad Topalian, chairman of the Washington-based Armenian National Committee of America. "It causes us a great deal of consternation and concern."
In a televised speech, Ter-Petrosyan accused the Dashnaks of harboring a secret terrorist wing called Dro that allegedly undertook political assassinations, including the December killing of the former mayor of Yerevan, as well as drug-trafficking, extortion and espionage.
Ter-Petrosyan said a four-month criminal investigation led to the party's banning. The Armenian security service said it had collected a 5,000-page dossier on the Dashnaks' illegal activities with help from the Russian counterintelligence service. None of the evidence has been made public, however.
The Dashnak leadership "exploited its rank-and-file members' patriotic sentiments and carried out its secret criminal activity under the guise of the party's official structures and national ideals," Ter-Petrosyan said.
The ban on the Dashnaks was quickly followed by the arrest of dozens of party activists, seizures of equipment and supplies and a crackdown on the press, Topalian said by telephone from Cleveland. Three Dashnak leaders were arrested last week on charges of running the outlawed party, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.
Topalian said 10 newspapers, two magazines and several other ventures, including a Canadian Armenian print shop, have been closed.
"There was over $2 million worth of equipment confiscated or taken or damaged or broken that we in the diaspora were trying to get there," Topalian said. "For a governmental decree to come down and ban all the press, ban all freedom of expression and then ban the party and say that this is due process, conviction without a trial, is totally unacceptable to us in the West."
When the order banning the Dashnaks came out, Boghigian--a 39-year-old American of Armenian descent who had lived in Yerevan since 1990--was hauled into the offices of the former KGB and interrogated by security officials for three hours. After more questioning Jan. 3, Boghigian was told that the government was revoking his visa, and he was given 24 hours to leave the country. He flew out the next day.
"I think (the expulsion order) was a hasty decision--not well thought out," Boghigian said in a recent telephone interview from Washington. "I'm already trying to get a visa again."
Boghigian says that Ter-Petrosyan's claims of criminal wrongdoing by the Dashnaks are false and politically motivated.
"He wants to neutralize the major opposition party just before the election," Boghigian argued, referring to parliamentary elections scheduled for May.
In its statement, the United States said the party will be left out of elections unless an agreement to reinstate it can be reached quickly.
The Dashnaks currently hold 17 of the 260 seats in the Armenian Parliament, which was elected under Communist rule in 1990.
Boghigian predicted that the Dashnaks would take at least 20% of the seats in the upcoming elections.
The Armenian government is also trying to shut down another opposition party that plans to participate in the May elections--the Union of Constitutional Rights--ostensibly for having foreigners in its leadership.
A large number of overseas ethnic Armenians have moved to their ancestral homeland to help rebuild the country.