WESTERNERS shouldn't jump to conclusions about unrest in the Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The USSR isn't likely to come unglued. The glue being vigorously tested is the political consensus holding together Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, or openness. Massive demonstrations in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, and violent disturbances in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait had their genesis in a glasnost-inspired effort to reunite the Armenian Republic and the heavily Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh. For more than 60 years that region has been part of Azerbaijan.
The happenings in Armenia give ammunition to conservative, anti-Gorbachev elements in the Soviet hierarchy. Nothing so rattles the country's largely ethnic Russian leadership as rumblings of non-Russian nationalism. The rumblings have been fairly constant over the past year, with demonstrations in the Baltic republics and in the central Asian republic of Kazakhstan as well as Armenia. Lurking in the background is the demographic probability that the Russians themselves will be an ethnic minority by the turn of the century.
Mr. Gorbachev has gambled that allowing freer political expression wouldn't whip up flames of ethnic nationalism. He is finding that opening the door to public expression lets in things both pleasant and unpleasant. The ethnic conflict in Armenia and Azerbaijan puts his judgment to a crucial test.
Americans and others who tend to view the Soviets as adversaries will watch all this with interest. That interest should center on whether the man who holds out the promise of a Soviet Union more open to cooperation with the West can hold things together at home.