Armenian activists test Soviet resolve. Moscow signals patience is wearing thin on protests

The gulf between Armenian demonstrators and Moscow seems to be deepening. Moscow is losing patience with the protests. And Armenian activists, demanding the transfer of the region of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan to Armenia, appear increasingly hostile to the Soviet leadership.

``Are we going to sit and read sermons while people engage in excesses and commit arson,'' Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev asked rhetorically Friday during a speech to senior Soviet media and ideology officials. (See story on back page.)

Official news reports from the disputed region claim that last week's imposition of a curfew and declaration of a state of emergency in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh helped calm tensions. (Both Azerbaijan and Armenia are closed to the Western press.) The official media are now concentrating their criticism on the organizers of Armenian demonstrations in support of their compatriots in Nagorno-Karabakh, known as the Karabakh Committee.

Moscow seems to be trying either to prepare the ground for a move against the Karabakh Committee, or to force it into inactivity by creating the impression of an imminent crackdown.

For the last few nights the coverage of Armenian unrest on the principal evening news broadcast on Soviet TV has been accompanied by interviews with workers from other parts of the country. They have expressed indignation at the disruption caused by strikes and demonstrations, and in some cases have called for tough measures.

But the attitude of the Armenian demonstrators has also changed. Early demonstrations in support of Nagorno-Karabakh were accompanied by banners supporting perestroika (restructuring) and Mikhail Gorbachev. Activists praised Gorbachev.

But Western reporters who visited Armenia earlier this month, during the brief period that it was open to foreign correspondents, say that pro-reform slogans are no longer in evidence.

In addition, the Karabakh Committee is said to be preparing a charter of demands. Key points include reinforcing Armenia's autonomy vis-`a-vis Moscow, extending the teaching of the Armenian language, creating Armenian military units where young Armenians could do their military service, and eliminating environmentally hazardous industrial sites. All these demands resemble those advanced earlier by activists in the Baltic states. Armenians are known to have contact with the Baltic groups. An Armenian activist was in fact said to have been in Lithuania last week during a rally against a nuclear power station.

The Karabakh Committee also resembles its Baltic counterparts, whose active members include academics, teachers, writers, and journalists. But some Baltic activists criticize the Armenians for their excessively confrontational approach to Moscow and their unwillingness to keep communications open with Soviet reformers.

This confrontational approach may eventually make it easier for the Soviet leadership to crack down. Three months ago this might have looked embarrassingly like a roundup of Armenian supporters of perestroika.

But now, representatives of all parts of the reform spectrum could plausibly depict it as a move against intransigent extremists.

Moscow's response to the seven months of unrest has been a relatively moderate combination of carrot and stick. Neither has worked. A promise of developmental aid for Karabakh had no effect on demonstrations. In May, new party chiefs were appointed in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. In July, the country's parliament, the Supreme Soviet, decided Karabkh should remain under Azerbaijani administration. This, officials said at the time, was the last word on Karabakh.

Hints from Moscow of a major crackdown immediately after the Supreme Soviet resolution led only to temporary quiet. Although the leadership in Moscow spoke of the Karabakh problem being solved after the Supreme Soviet discussions, the Soviet public was less impressed. Nearly 70 percent of those questioned in a public opinion poll in Moscow last month were skeptical that the problem had really been settled.

The latest outburst of violence in Karabakh flared up on Sept. 18 when 49 people were reported injured during clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. One person died. A state of emergency and a curfew were imposed in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, and in Agdam, a neighboring Azerbaijani district. Troops and armored vehicles were deployed.

A deputy minister of the interior, Nikolai Demidov, was in Yerevan last week. But despite his presence, another massive rally took place there Friday evening.

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