THOUGH we have a general idea of recent events in Soviet Armenia and of the bloody backlash that these triggered in the neighboring Azerbaijani Soviet republic, the hows and whys remain unclear. But interviews with a delegation from Soviet Armenia in the United States, as well as with American experts in Washington and elsewhere, make certain conclusions unavoidable.
The century-long Armenian question has entered a new phase. Its thrust has shifted from the Turkish capital, Ankara, to Moscow, and its method has gone from conspiratorial activism to the involvement of the Armenian people as a whole.
From 1975 to 1984, Armenian terrorists in the West tried to force Turkey to accept responsibility for the genocide of Armenians during World War I. This strategy failed, and the terrorist incidents have since tapered off: There were 47 such incidents in 1981, 26 in 1982, 13 in 1983, and just 6 in 1984 when they halted.
Now Armenians are fighting for their goals through strictly democratic means, with succes-sive demonstrations in Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia, peaking at about 400,000 participants in February. Their goal: the merger of the heavily Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region of Azerbaijan with the Armenian Republic.
The Armenians have learned from other Soviet nationalities that demonstrations gain foreign and Soviet media attention, that police countermeasures are no longer harsh, and that Mikhail Gorbachev will pay attention.
Merger remains highly unlikely. It would draw intense opposition from Azerbaijanis and other Soviet Muslims. Above all, such a precedent would em-bolden every nationality in the Soviet bloc.
But the Armenians still have several cards in their hand. Armenians are highly educated, and - according to Gerard Liba-ridian of the Zoran Institute, an Armenian think tank - are heavily represented in the technical intelligentsia whose energies Mr. Gorbachev needs in order to rebuild the Soviet economy. (Armenian names are prominent in Soviet scientific and technological journals.) Moscow also hopes to maintain good ties with the Armenian diaspora, whose voice is audible in US politics (particularly in California), among Mideast radicals (particularly in Lebanon), and among US entrepreneurs now considering investment in Soviet Armenia.
The loyalty of Armenians is thus worth retaining. Hence Moscow's much-publicized recent cultural, educational, and financial concessions to Karabakh: Americans are not alone in throwing money at problems. Likewise, Moscow's early criticisms of the Armenian protests have softened.
At the same time, the Armenian Communist Party has openly embraced Armenian national interests. Several members of the delegation responded enthusiastically when asked if they had demonstrated. Another said he had told workers at his factory to march. Such large, well-organized marches could not have occurred without some level of party participation, according to a Washington specialist who requested anonymity.
The Armenian party first secretary, Karen Demirchijan, is an old-time Brezhnev follower, unwanted by Gorbachev. The pretext for his ouster: corruption - a plausible accusation for those who see Armenians as wheeling-dealing capitalists at heart.
``Trotskyism used to be the charge,'' says one Washington specialist on Soviet minorities, ``but now it's corruption. Either way, the Gorbachev crowd wants Demirchijan out.''
Mr. Demirchijan has countered by upholding Armenian national aspirations. Whether this will save him beyond this summer's Communist Party plenum is an open question.
The Azerbaijanis responded to the upsurge by their traditional Christian rivals with what Tass bluntly labelled ``a pogrom.'' It broke out on Sunday, Feb. 28, in Sumgait (on the Caspian Sea) and apparently continued into Monday, when troops from outside ended it; local police did little to stop the attack. Sumgait is a raw industrial town filled with young, unmarried, male workers of several nationalities - Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Russians - who have migrated there for higher pay and who mix only on the job.
When the attack was over, 34 Armenians were officially listed as killed. The Armenian delegation said that 34 was accurate.
Not since World War II has such a large-scale, spontaneous attack by one group of Soviet citizens on another been known to have occurred. The attack suggests that Transcaucasia - despite 70 years of Soviet rule and the creation of a new ``Soviet man'' - remains as dangerous an ethnic-religious powder keg as it was in Tsarist times.