Soviet Ethnic Troubles Simmer in Provinces

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THOUGH calls by a newly formed popular front in the central Asian republic of Azerbaijan for a general strike seem to have met with a hesitant response from the republic's inhabitants, Moscow's problems with its non-Russian peoples show no sign of abating. Political strikes continue in Moldavia, on the Soviet Union's western border, where native-Russian speakers are protesting against new language laws which they claim will infringe on their political and cultural rights. And another independent mass organization is due to come into existence this weekend; the founding meeting of the Ukrainian Popular Movement for the Support of Perestroika is scheduled to start in the republic's capital of Kiev on Friday.

The Soviet Union's second most populous republic, the Ukraine, has until now remained politically inert under the careful direction of Vladimir Shcherbitsky, the last associate of disgraced Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to retain any political power.

Formation of the Ukrainian front will complete the network of informal mass movements stretching from the Baltics in the north to Armenia and Azerbaijan in the far south. All are demanding at the very least a loosening of the political, cultural, and economic bonds that tie them to Moscow. Activists in the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, meanwhile, are becoming increasingly frank in their calls for complete independence from the Soviet Union.

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The first of the Gorbachev-era ethnic disturbances, over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh - administered by Azerbaijan, but peopled largely by ethnic Armenians - refuses to go away. In January Moscow implemented de facto direct rule over the enclave.

But strikes have brought the industrial life of the enclave to a halt since May, and on Sept. 3 Arkady Volsky, the Moscow-appointed chief administrator of Nagorno-Karabakh, told the Army paper Krasnaya Zvezda that the district was rapidly approaching ``internecine warfare.''

A tough statement by the Soviet Communist Party leadership on Aug. 28 failed to moderate nationalist agitation in the Baltics or the rest of the country. Agitation will probably increase in the near future as activists on both sides of the issue maneuver for position in anticipation of a landmark meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee expected later this month. The meeting is designed to draw up a new policy on relations among nationalities.

The party leadership will probably recommend giving the country's constituent republics greater political and economic autonomy. This is much less than many nationalist activists are prepared to accept. For many ethnic Russians living in the outlying republics, this will be far too much. Protesting Russians have already paralyzed Estonia and Moldavia with strikes. The strikers claim support from Russians in other parts of the Soviet Union, and some Soviet observers expect the protest strikes to spread in coming months.

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