Gorbachev treads fine line on Armenian issue. Soviet leader's conciliatory line may fuel more nationalism, but crackdown would stymie reform

Mikhail Gorbachev seems to have gained a temporary respite from the unprecedented nationalist unrest among Armenians in the Soviet Union. But from the sketchy information available, he seems to have done so at the price of a reversal of policy on the unrest.

Armenian demonstrators were reported Saturday to have declared a one-month moratorium in their demonstrations. For eight days, Armenians in Soviet Armenia and in several areas of neighboring Azerbaijan have been on the streets in mass demonstrations. They are demanding the return to Armenia of the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian area that was transferred to the largely Muslim republic of Azerbaijan in 1923.

The Armenian demand is politically sensitive: Soviet leaders are traditionally loath to buckle to nationalist demands, for fear that one concession will trigger further agitation in other minority areas.

It also could prove technically complex: Nagorno-Karabakh does not have a common boundary with Soviet Armenia.

The moratorium annnouncement follows two developments on Friday: a message from Mr. Gorbachev to Armenians and Azerbaijanis, and a resolution by the Armenian Communist leadership, calling for a commission to examine the demonstrators' demands. Gorbachev's message has not been published in Moscow, but reports indicate that he took a more conciliatory approach to the demonstrators' demands. This appears to be an abrupt reversal of the original tough line on the unrest, in which there have reportedly been an unspecified number of casualties. [According to Reuters, a Soviet official said Sunday that two people had been killed during disturbances in Azerbaijan.]

The events around Nagorno-Karabakh have very serious implications for the Soviet leadership.

Specter of `national communism'

Most disturbing, perhaps, is the involvement of government officials and the local media in the agitation. This probably calls to the minds of some leaders in Moscow the specter of ``national communism,'' when Communist Party officials from ethnic minorities champion their compatriots' nationalist grievances.

The role of Armenian party chief Karen Demirchyan in the events is not clear. Before the demonstrations he had come under harsh and repeated criticism from Gorbachev for his failure to crack down on corruption and implement reforms. From official accounts of the disturbances, however, it is obvious that many officials in Nagorno-Karabakh were actively involved in the agitation.

Freezing `glasnost'

Another disturbing outcome of the demonstrations is the temporary suspension of the policy of glasnost (openness). Moscow waited for almost three days before admitting the gravity of events in Armenia, and has since published the bare minimum of information. The leadership showed a similar slowness in the immediate aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Many observers attribute that delay to confusion. It is obvious this time, however, that Moscow was quickly aware of the problems' seriousness.

Official accounts of the disturbances make it clear that they were carefully prepared and well-coordinated. It is also clear that Moscow moved quickly, though without publicity, to try to head off the unrest - but was unsuccessful.

An account in the Soviet government party newspaper Izvestia says agitation began Feb. 11. On that day, posters and open letters began to appear in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, calling for the region to be incoporated into Armenia. Two days later students in the region went on strike, and a public meeting was held outside the local party headquarters. Other meetings were held in the Azerbaijani town of Agdam, and in the small autonomous republic of Nakhichevan, to the south of Armenia.

The most disturbing incident took place, however, on Feb. 20, when the Karabakh regional soviet (local government) passed a resolution backing the demands. The region's official paper, Soviet Karabakh, then published the resolution. (Izvestia says the resolution was later overturned as unlawful).

Moscow's response to these actions was swift. An editor of the main Armenian Communist Party newspaper said in a telephone interview that a Politburo resolution on the disturbances was passed on Sunday Feb. 21.

Brief summaries published several days late indicated the leadership had adopted an uncompromising line. On the same day, the editor said, four senior leaders left for the troubled area. Two candidate (nonvoting) members of the Politburo, Georgy Razumovsky and Petr Demichev, went to Nagorno-Karabakh. Another candidate member of the Politburo, Vladimir Dolgikh, and Central Committee Secretary Anatoly Lukyanov went to Armenia. Mr. Lukyanov is a close associate and a former university colleague of Gorbachev.

Moscow has not announced any Politburo meeting on Armenia, has published only brief extracts of a resolution, and did not confirm until the end of the week that the four leaders were in the south.

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