Moscow — The Armenian earthquake is rapidly developing political dimensions. Armenian activists are continuing their demonstrations over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. An angry outburst by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as he prepared to leave the southern republic contained a threat of further action against the Karabakh Committee, which has been spearheading agitation.
Meanwhile, criticism is growing of the allegedly substandard construction methods that may have added significantly to the death toll in Armenia.
Officials said Monday night that the provisional death toll of 40,000 to 45,000 had not yet been revised. Some 6,000 people have been pulled out of the ruins, but hopes of saving many more were fading.
The relief operation now involves tens of thousands of people; 12,000 troops have been committed, more than 900 international rescue workers, thousands of volunteers from other parts of Armenia, and relatives of those missing.
Two air crashes have added to the casualties: On Sunday, 78 soldiers and airmen died when their cargo plane with relief supplies crashed near the stricken city of Leninakan. And all seven crew members of a Yugoslav plane on a mercy flight died Monday morning on the approach to the Armenian capital of Yerevan.
At a press briefing Monday afternoon, officials offered a preliminary estimate of the cost of the tragedy: 5 billion rubles (about $8.4 billion at official rates) for the reconstruction of housing and social services alone.
The response to the earthquake underlines how some aspects of the Soviet system have changed dramatically over the last few years - and how others have stood absolutely still.
Several Soviet newspapers, notably the government daily Izvestia, have been probing hard into the story, criticizing disorganization and delays in the operation. The country's airspace has been opened up to foreign relief flights, and an Israeli rescue team is already working at the quake site, even though the two countries do not have diplomatic relations.
On the other hand, the disaster has highlighted the built-in incompetence of the administrative system. The Soviet Union has everything needed for a relief and rescue operation, the Communist Party daily Pravda said Monday - trained dogs, electronic listening devices, and specialists. But the dogs come under one department; the technical equipment under another, and the specialists, a third.
Thus while a French team set up operations in a matter of minutes, Pravda commented, ``For every one of our workers there are 10 observers `who offer advice rather than clear the ruins.'''
It is also now clear that the earthquake has revived rather than stilled ethnic tensions in Armenia. The Karabakh Committee, composed mainly of well-known Armenian intellectuals, has intensified its activities. It continues to demand the transfer of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan to Armenia.
After last Wednesday's earthquake, the committee announced its own appeal for aid to the victims. This was stopped on Saturday when a number of the committee's activists were arrested.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov said that five of the committee ``ringleaders'' had been given 30-day ``administrative'' terms of imprisonment. The wife of one committee member, Vazgen Manukyan, said that six members of the group had been arrested, and the rest have gone into hiding. She claimed that thousands of people came out onto the streets Sunday to protest the arrests, and were dispersed by troops. Mr. Gerasimov said in a press briefing Monday that he had no word of any demonstrations.
Mr. Gorbachev, who returned from Armenia Sunday, was clearly both shaken by what he saw at the site of the earthquake, and furious at the Karabakh Committee's continued agitation.
Attacking the activists as corrupt, unprincipled, and adventurist, he threatened both political and ``administrative'' - i.e., legal - action against them. He also responded angrily to rumors that Armenian children would be shipped off to other parts of the country, where they would gradually become Russified.
Criticism of the quality of building in the stricken cities has also increased. Writing in Pravda Monday, a team of journalists commented that it was hard to tell what ingredient predominated in the concrete panels used for buildings, sand or cement. The buildings put up during the years of ``stagnation'' - shorthand for the period from 1964 to 1982, when Leonid Brezhnev was Soviet leader - had mostly collapsed, Pravda claimed.
Leonid Bibin, deputy chairman of the State Construction Committee, told a briefing yesterday that the crux of the matter was an underestimate of the possible strength of earthquakes in the area. Buildings had been designed to resist a quake of eight points on the Soviet scale. (Moscow does not use the Richter scale.) The earthquake of Dec. 7 had exceeded this figure, he said. But he added that investigations into the quality of buildings were under way.
The evacuation of the area is losing momentum, officials said Monday. People had been unwilling to move out until they had found their relatives, either dead or alive, the officials explained. But as some begin to leave, the state airline, Aeroflot, reports an influx of new arrivals into the area: Armenians living in other parts of the country who are coming to look for their relatives and loved ones.