DURING recent months, world attention has been riveted on ethnic strife in the Caucasus and the tragic Armenian earthquake. But another issue - the ecological destruction of Armenia - also explains Armenians' anger at Mikhail Gorbachev. At a rally of 100,000 people in Yerevan last autumn, the Karabakh Committee issued a manifesto of the new Armenian National Movement, a popular front similar to those in the Baltic republics pressing for greater autonomy. Among other things, the manifesto called for veto power over federal projects constructed in Armenia, a demand intended to halt the environmental rape of the region.
In his December speech to the United Nations, Gorbachev accompanied his conventional arms cut with a promise to remit the Kremlin's (nonexistent) third-world debt and to join ranks to eliminate the ``threat to the world's environment.''
Observing that, ``In a number of regions, the state of the environment is simply frightening,'' Gorbachev proposed a UN center for emergency environmental assistance. A disarmed, ``nonviolent'' world, he said, must wage a united struggle against hunger, poverty, and ``aggressions against nature.''
Those lofty sentiments may ring hollow to Armenians, who have vainly tried to elicit the General Secretary's concern for his own backyard. Three years earlier, a group of Armenian academicians sent a letter to the republic's Presidium of the Academy of Sciences, warning that environmental trends threatened to turn Armenia into a wasteland. Their appeal fell on deaf ears.
At the time of the 27th Party Congress in 1986, thousands of similar letters were sent to Gorbachev and the Congress by individual citizens, industrial enterprises, and academic institutions. When no reply was received, the academicians released their letter to samizdat from where it made its way to Novoye Russkoye Slovo, a Russian-language 'emigr'e newspaper published in New York. Their account depicts the catastrophic environmental condition in the Soviet Union.
One-third of Armenia's 3.5 million people live in the capital of Yerevan where 80 percent of the air is poisoned. Many of Armenia's rivers are biologically dead, while others are ecologically unfit. Five of the seven most polluted cities in the USSR are located in Armenia. Chemical plants in numerous cities and the cement factory at Razdan have destroyed nearby forests, vegetation, and wildlife. Toxic chemical emissions in some cities exceed permissible norms by factors up to 1000. In Yerevan and the Ararat Plain where two-thirds of the population lives, environmental degradation has substantially increased the incidence of dozens of illnesses.
Undeterred by this appalling state of affairs, the 27th Party Congress decreed that a second nuclear plant be built alongside the Metsamor power station in the Oktemberyan district 24 kilometers from Yerevan. A depository for radioactive waste was to be added, and the Congress ordered a 50 percent increase in chemical production.
The Congress made its decision despite the fact that over the last 10 years more than 150 serious accidents were recorded at that site, some involving the escape of large quantities of radioactive gases and contaminated water.
The annual electric power potential in Armenia amounts to 28 billion kilowatt hours with actual production standing at 15 billion hours. Of this total, 2.7 billion kilowatt hours are exported to neighboring republics and to Turkey. Through conservation efforts, Armenia could produce (without nuclear power) 25-30 billion kilowatt hours of electric power, twice the amount it needs.
Armenia's crisis demonstrates that notwithstanding the remarkable changes that have occurred in Soviet society since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, many traits of the Soviet system remain unchanged: secrecy, deception, indifference toward human life, primitive technology, scandalous safety and health standards, controlled information, and reluctance to admit mistakes or report bad news.
Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov boasted that the Armenian earthquake proved that ``glasnost saves lives.'' He is, of course, correct. The question is how far the Kremlin will carry that slogan.
The environmental destruction of Armenia makes a mockery of one of Gorbachev's favorite propaganda motifs - ``our common European home.'' If Kremlin rulers will not protect their own house, why should neighbors trust Soviet solicitude for theirs?