MOSCOW has moved to defuse tension in the southern republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Like many decisions of the Gorbachev leadership, the latest steps attempt to reconcile two nearly irreconcilable positions - in this case the conflicting claims of Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. As of Jan. 20, Nagorno-Karabakh - predominantly Armenian in ethnic origin, but under Azerbaijan's jurisdiction - will come under Moscow's direct rule. Although theoretically Karabakh will remain part of Azerbaijan, this will not please the republic's leadership.
The decision, officially described as unique in Soviet history, in the short term may help restore the waning popularity of the Communist Party leadership among ordinary Armenians. It will, however, also heighten Armenian expectations that Karabakh will eventually be transferred to them.
Another move will anger many Armenians: the authorities have arrested the leaders of the Karabakh Committee - Armenian intellectuals who have been agitating for Karabakh's transfer to their republic - and flown them to Moscow, where according to unconfirmed reports, they will stand trial.
These moves follow closely on the heels of admissions by some Soviet officials that Moscow's policy on Karabakh had reached a dead end. Since the conflict flared up last February, Moscow had clung to a line of admitting that Karabakh Armenians had been badly treated in the past, promising a generous development plan to improve economic, social, and cultural conditions in the enclave - but refusing to consider the idea of removing Karabakh from Azerbaijan.
This has not worked. Violence has claimed nearly 80 lives. There has been an enormous exodus of refugees from both Armenia and Azerbaijan: 180,000 Armenians alone have left Azerbaijan in the last year, according to the Armenian interior minister. Soviet airborne units enforce a nightly curfew in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. Similar curfews are in effect in districts of both republics with mixed Armenian-Azerbaijani populations.
This approach has come under implicit criticism recently. Speaking last week, Nail Bikkenin, editor of the ideological journal Kommunist, listed a number of mistakes made by leaders past and present. ``Some comrades have simplified the problem to one of social-cultural development - as if things would get better if we built more cinemas and theaters there,'' he said. He then outlined other failings. Moscow should have dropped the former party leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan much sooner, he said. (They were replaced last May.) And successive Soviet leaders have confused national feelings with nationalist extremism, he added.
Recent conversations in Yerevan indicate that Moscow's hard-line policy had badly damaged the standing of Armenian party chief Suren Arutyunyan. ``Arutyunyan is not popular now,'' said a young Communist Party member. Mr. Arutyunyan's tough attitude toward the Karabakh Committee was largely responsible for this, the young man said. ``The party here has lost its ability to gauge what people are thinking, and then respond,'' he continued. Despite some ``excesses, largely due to lack of experience,'' the leaders of the Karabakh Committee had been much more successful in mobilizing public support, he added. The Communist Party member and other Armenians also criticized Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's ``menacing'' attack on Armenian activists during a visit to Armenia soon after the Dec. 7 earthquake.
The announcement of direct rule - officially described as ``special administration'' - leaves several key questions unanswered. The composition of the administrative committee, other than its chairman Arkady Volsky, has not been announced. Unofficial sources say neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan will be represented in the committee. The official decree announcing direct rule says simply that the Azerbaijan government's opinion will be ``taken into consideration'' while the special provisions are in effect.
So far there has been no indication of the duration of direct rule. In a phone interview Sunday an Armenian university lecturer, Ashot Grigoryan, spoke of hints from Moscow that the status of Nagorno-Karabakh may be reviewed in the second half of this year.
Mr. Grigoryan, who in the past has been critical of official policy and warm toward the Karabakh Committee, described direct rule as an acceptable compromise position. But he made it clear that he and other intellectuals would be disappointed if Karabakh had not been transferred to Armenia in the next one to two years.
Direct rule has been broached over the last few months by several leading Armenian intellectuals. It was also raised by academician Andrei Sakharov when he visited the south in search of a solution to the Karabakh problem in late December.
(Mr. Sakharov's visit was undertaken with the encouragement of Alexander Yakovlev, one of the most radical-minded reformers in the Soviet leadership. Although officially given responsibility for foreign affairs in a leadership shake-up last September, Mr. Yakovlev continues to play an active role in overseeing ethnic problems, both in the south and in the Baltic republics).
The crackdown on the Karabakh Committee, after months of official threats, warnings, and denunciations, seems designed largely to prove to Azerbaijan that Moscow was not buckling to Armenian demands.
Contacted Sunday, Griselda Kazaryan, the wife of Karabakh Committee member Rafael Kazaryan, said her husband had been detained Jan. 7, ostensibly for five days. She had not seen him since, she said. But relatives had discovered over the weekend that he and several other committee members were being held in Moscow's Butyrka prison. So far, she asserted, the authorities have not officially informed her of any charges against her husband.