Less tolerance in Armenia Getting tough: Re-elected president of isolated country exhibits autocratic tendencies.

February 01, 1997

THE COLLAPSE OF the Soviet Union five years ago hit Armenia with a double-edged sword. The ancient Armenian homeland was again free but its economy went into a free fall. Within a year, gross domestic product fell by 52.4 percent. So did industrial production. Inflation went wild; the standard of living plummeted.

In the last two years, things have improved markedly. With gross domestic product increasing by nearly 7 percent in 1995, landlocked Armenia became the fastest growing former constituent republic of the Soviet Union.

These kinds of figures have impressed the International Monetary Fund and other foreigners. But many Armenians are still only too keenly aware of the hardships of their daily life. In September's controversial elections, they gave President Levon Ter-Petrossyan another five-year term, but only by a margin of 10 percentage points.

The president quickly forced out 38-year-old Prime Minister Hrant Bagratyan, who was credited by the West for the economic turnaround. "The price paid by our people has been very high," his successor, Armen Sarkissian, said during a recent visit to Washington.

Armenia desperately needs investment capital from foreign countries as well as from the widely scattered Armenian communities abroad. However, there is considerable concern about President Ter-Petrossyan's recent authoritarian actions. Political opposition is not tolerated, press freedoms have been curtailed and many complaints have been lodged about human rights violations.

The president's seeming disregard toward basic civil liberties is particularly worrisome because Mr. Ter-Petrossyan once was seen as a democratic reformer. After all, he himself had been jailed by the Soviets as a dissident.

In recent years, Armenia has been hit by earthquakes and other natural calamities. Territorial disputes have led to its isolation. Armenia is now trying to build bridges to Turkey and Iran, two neighbors with which it has had a turbulent historical relationship.

These contacts are good. But they would be even better if Armenia's domestic political system showed more stability.

Pub Date: 2/01/97

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