Kremlin's ethnic woes. Does official silence on Armenia dispute signal leaders' split?

A further polarization in the Soviet south has thrown Moscow's policy on national minorities into a state of unprecedented confusion. Two Communist Party leaders appointed to bring calm to the republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan have, instead, taken the sides of their respective communities in the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. The largely Armenian population of Karabakh, in Azerbaijan, wants the region to be transferred to Armenia.

Moscow is silent - perhaps from confusion, perhaps because the top leadership is split about how to deal with the issue.

Officials in Moscow say they would like to avoid a confrontation over Karabakh until after a major party conference at the end of this month. The conference already threatens to be a tense clash between supporters and opponents of reform. Instead, the Karabakh conflict will reach another watershed today, when the Armenian Supreme Soviet (parliament) is expected to endorse the region's demand to be transferred to Armenia.

The latest developments in the conflict came late Monday.

Speaking to a crowd of demonstrators estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000 in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, Monday night, the republic's party chief, Suren Arutyunyan, read out a draft resolution to be presented to today's session of the Soviet. The resolution called for accepting a Feb. 20 petition by the Karabakh local assembly, requesting incorporation into Armenia. The petition, later declared null and void by the Soviet leadership in Moscow, led to the dismissal of the region's party chief and sparked unrest resulting in at least 34 deaths.

Mr. Arutyunyan's address helped cut short a two-day general strike declared Monday morning, Armenian sources say. But it completely contradicted the statements and actions taken by the authorities in neighboring Azerbaijan. The general strike that started in Karabakh on May 22 is said to be continuing.

Also on Monday, the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet dismissed Karabakh's petition. Transferring the region to Armenia went against the interests of the republic's inhabitants, ``the tasks of reinforcing the friendship of all peoples of our country, and perestroika [restructuring],'' the resolution said. And, referring to a demonstration in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, the republic's party chief, Abdul Vezirov, reportedly assured his listeners that he would not let the disputed region go.

Both Arutyunyan and Mr. Vezirov were named party chiefs May 21. There are indications that the simultaneous dumping of their two discredited predecessors was part of a plan that had been under consideration for some time. Vezirov reportedly knew about his appointment several months in advance. But the appointments failed to calm the situation. And a speech by second-ranking Soviet leader Yegor Ligachev in Baku May 21 led to the latest round of strikes in Karabakh and Yerevan.

Armenian activists repeatedly emphasize their ardent support of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms. The present agitation in the south is ``perestroika in action,'' one of the leading activists, Zori Balayan, says. At the same time, some Armenians admit that their actions are part of a vicious circle, which could hurt, more than help, reforms.

Supporters of radical reform say that the chaos in the south is the result of years of neglect by previous leaders. Privately they echo the Armenians in saying that at least twice since February conservatives associated with Mr. Ligachev have aggravated the situation with hard-line statements.

But they are still loath to do what Armenian activists want: sanction the rewriting of the boundaries of two republics.

The Armenians have no such qualms: They talk of demanding an amendment to the Soviet Constitution to allow this. At present, Article 78 of the Constitution stipulates that boundary changes can be made only with the agreement of both republics involved in a dispute. The Armenians are, however, basing their demands on Article 70, which speaks of the ``free self-determination of nations'' within the Soviet Union.

The conservative line seems to reject any idea of new boundaries, and to view agitation in Armenia as the work of nationalist extremists. Probably the harshest expression of this viewpoint came in an article in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda March 21. The article claimed that activism in Karabakh was being manipulated by foreign anti-Soviet forces. Only a week before, on a visit to Yugoslavia, Mr. Gorbachev specifically told correspondents that the demonstrations in the south were not anti-Soviet.

The Pravda article was published, however, at a time of intense political tension in Moscow. It appeared during a period of about 10 days when conservatives believed to be close to Ligachev were actively blocking efforts by reformers to rebut another controversial article. The article, ostensibly by a Leningrad lecturer, was later denounced as an antireform political platform.

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