WASHINGTON — THE United States is giving Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev quiet but staunch support as he tries to control the ethnic passions boiling over in the southern Caucasus. In doing so, US officials are providing yet another glimpse of a cold war turned upside down: US approval, almost encouragement, of the use of Soviet soldiers against their own people.
Sending the Red Army to stop fighting between Soviet Armenians and Azerbaijanis is acceptable to the US because the unrest is not caused by modern politics. ``This is an ethnic, age-old tension, age-old enemies, and people settling old scores'' situation, said the State Department's Margaret Tutwiler Wednesday.
Unruly Soviet provinces could become a larger problem for President Bush, as well as Gorbachev, in the months ahead. Troops sent to stop Armenian-Azerbaijani rioting are one thing. What would the US do if Gorbachev used force to quiet calls for secession from the Soviet Union in the Baltic states?
Ethnic and nationalist unrest in the Soviet Union will be ``the big story of 1990,'' says a pensive State Department official.
In the southern Caucasus, the situation had reached the verge of open civil war by Thursday. Tension between mostly Christian Armenians and mostly Muslim Azerbaijanis had erupted into pitched battles featuring small arms and artillery. Fighting appeared centered in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, and Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly Armenian region surrounded and governed by Azerbaijan. At least 58 people have been reported killed.
Regional animosities with historic roots
The fighting reflects centuries of religious, national, and territorial conflict between the two ethnic groups. Armenians have long been present in what is now the southern Soviet Union. Azerbaijanis are descendants of Turk who invaded the area over a thousand years ago. ``This is pretty much along lines of the Arab-Israeli conflict. How far back do you want to go to find the causes?'' asked Nader Entessar, an expert on Soviet nationalities at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala.
Soviet television reported that 11,000 Army and KGB troops were airlifted into the troubled region, reportedly raising the level to 17,000. They were given orders to fire if need be in self-defense as militant Azerbaijanis set up roadblocks to impede the soldiers.
US officials say it is clear the situation is deterioriating into chaos and that Gorbachev might have to clamp down even harder to keep the peace. ``We understand the need to restore order where order has broken down,'' said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater on Tuesday. This position was presaged by Secretary of State James Baker III three weeks ago. At the time Mr. Baker said the US would not object if Soviet troops went to Romania to oust remnants of the Ceausescu regime.
US will weigh which Soviet troop actions to condemn
US officials appear to be making distinctions between uses of Soviet force they will approve, and uses they will not. Use of USSR troops to promote democratic change or quell ethnic hatred is all right, in the US view. Using them to stifle valid political protest is another. No more will there be reflexive US condemnation of Soviet muscle-flexing. Each situation will be considered on its own merits, according to Secretary Baker.
The Baltic states could pose the most difficult problem for this US policy. The US has long said it does not recognize Moscow's inclusion of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia into the Soviet Union. But the Bush administration has remained quiet and refrained from fully endorsing the independence movements that have brought these regions close to an open break with the Kremlin.
Undoubtedly the US would strenuously object if Soviet troops entered the Baltic states merely to halt the so-far peaceful call for political change. But what would the US do if, say, Russian ethnic minorities in these states rioted, and the government intervened?
``The problem is that the secessionist drives are really deep rooted,'' says Professor Entessar.