Prague, 30 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - In the three Caucasian nations, 1996 brought continued ethnic tensions and concerns over a lack of respect for democratic practices. But Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia also escaped any return to the fighting of earlier years, and in many respects living conditions improved.
The only nationwide poll took place in Armenia, where President Levon Ter-Petrosyan was initially expected to win with ease. But as the September election approached, much of the opposition united behind Vazgen Manukyan and the race tightened.
Ter-Petrosyan's rhetoric became increasingly heated. Two days before the vote he told a national television audience that the country risked fascism if Manukyan prevailed. Observers, including a mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OCSE), reported serious irregularities during the voting. But the country's electoral commission claimed that the president had been re-elected with just under 52 percent of the vote -- enough to avoid a runoff.
The opposition responded with demonstrations which in one instance turned violent. The government cracked down, jailing six opposition legislators after stripping them of immunity from prosecution. Manukyan temporarily went underground.
In what may prove to be the year's other main political development, Armenia's Supreme Court in December issued a verdict in a closely watched trial which included members of the banned Dashnak party (HHD). The court sentenced three defendants to death, but found no evidence that the HHD had ties to a terrorist movement. The alleged link had been used to justify the party's banning in 1994. It remains to be seen whether the ban will be lifted.
Analysts say that while the year's events demonstrated Ter-Petrosyan's control of the political apparatus, they also showed that his popular support is very fragile. And while international criticism of his government's handling of the election was mild, a price may yet be paid. The Council of Europe is expected to consider Yerevan's application to join the human rights body in 1997, and Ter-Petrosyan may have difficulty proving his commitment to democratic principles -- a key requirement for membership.
While Armenia's democracy suffered a serious setback, its economy showed signs of improvement. The London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) released projections in November which predicted growth at some 7 percent for both 1996 and 1997.
The man widely credited by international financial organizations with engineering Armenia's economic growth resigned as prime minister in November. Hrant Bagratyan had headed the government since early 1993, pursuing tight money and economic reform policies. He stepped down after criticism from the chairman of the ruling party, who blamed his policies for Ter-Petrosyan's election troubles.
Internationally, Armenia's relations with other nations were complicated by the continuing dispute over neighboring Azerbaijan's mostly ethnic-Armenian enclave of Nagarno-Karabakh. Most damaging, Turkey maintained its economic blockade, demanding that Armenia recognize the enclave as Azerbaijani territory.
Negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh showed little progress in 1996. Talks sponsored by an international group and including Azerbaijani and Armenian officials and officials from the separatist enclave concluded for the year in December with little progress reported. They are set to resume next year with either France or the United States expected to join Russia as co-chair.
Diplomats say an agreement may eventually be reached keeping the enclave within Azerbaijan while granting it considerable autonomy.
In the rest of Azerbaijan, an economic contraction continued. The EBRD estimated that for the year, Azerbaijan would experience a fall in gross domestic product of some 3 percent. However, the EBRD projected that it would experience growth of some 6 percent in 1997.
One explanation for the country's poor economic performance is the continued closure of the border with Russia, which Moscow sealed in late 1994 after it invaded the breakaway republic of Chechnya.
Azerbaijan's long-term economic prospects are tied in part to efforts to develop gas and oil reserves in the Caspian and to establish routes for shipping energy products to the West.
An international consortium decided in 1996 to develop two pipeline routes, one north from Azerbaijan to Russia's Black Sea port of Novorossiisk and a second running west through Georgia and on to Turkey. Russia has demanded to keep part of the trade and the revenue and influence that goes with it. Azerbaijan, as well as Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, are anxious to develop the alternative route.
Complications persist. The route through Russia would travel through lands -- including Chechnya -- where political instabilities are acute. And Azerbaijan in 1996 remained involved in a dispute with Russia over the legal definition of the Caspian which has implications for how its resources can be developed.
Beyond oil politics, shake-ups during the year affected the country's economic management. Several officials responsible for economic affairs were fired and Prime Minister Faud Kuliev resigned.
Trials continued during the year against those the government has accused of either attempting a coup or of planning to assassinate President Heydar Aliyev. The international group Human Rights Watch, in its annual report in December, criticized conduct of the trials and the treatment of those being detained. It also criticized what it said were continuing efforts to "stifle political speech" and accused authorities of moving against independent media.
In Georgia in 1996, observers noted a greater degree of stability as the government demonstrated increased cohesiveness and as political violence eased. The economy also performed better. The EBRD estimated growth at some 10 percent in 1996 -- highest in the Commonwealth of Independent States. The EBRD expects GDP to increase even more in 1997. However, unemployment is still estimated at 20 percent or more.
International observers expressed concerns regarding freedoms during the year. Human Rights Watch said in its annual report that freedom of the press was generally respected, but noted concerns over moves to close an independent television channel for what appeared to be political reasons. A court later ruled it could remain on the air. Human Rights Watch also said that the harassment of some Georgian political dissidents continued.
Negotiations continued during the year on the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and ceasefires between Georgian forces and those from the two breakaway regions continued to hold.
In May, OSCE-sponsored talks resulted in the signing of an agreement between Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and South Ossetia's parliament chairman Lyudwig Chibirov. It committed the two sides to peacefully resolving their dispute on the region's political status.
Less progress was made in talks on Abkhazia and Human Rights Watch says that some returning ethnic Georgians were met with violence. Conflict over the region, from which Georgian troops fled in 1994, also strained relations with Moscow which has deployed troops there to maintain the ceasefire. Tbilisi has been angered by Russia's unwillingness to order its troops to more actively protect returnees.
Elections were held in both of Georgia's breakaway regions late in the year, as they were in Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. In no instance were they recognized as legitimate by outside states. But the votes demonstrated the effective autonomy of local leaders.
(Assisting with this report were OMRI's Liz Fuller and Emil Danielyan, Mardiros Soghom of the Armenian Service, Mirza Michaeli of the Azerbaijani Service, and David Kakabadze of the Georgian Service.)