THE violent battle between Armenia and Azerbaijan has strengthened the respect commanded here by Armenia's opposition movement and further undermined the authority of the republic's government. But, in a marked difference from nationalists in neighboring Azerbaijan, opposition leaders in Armenia have not seized on the crisis as an opportunity to pursue secession from the Soviet Union.
In Yerevan, the Armenian capital, it is the opposition movement, rather than the Communist government, that is coordinating emergency housing for thousands of Armenian refugees arriving daily from Azerbaijan. Through daily rallies and radio broadcasts during the first weeks of the crisis, opposition leaders called for calm, managing to maintain order in a city overflowing with armed and angry men.
Discontent in Armenia with Soviet central authority is as widespread as in many of the other republics now calling for immediate independence from the Soviet Union. In fact, the failure of Soviet authorities to prevent the outbreak of anti-Armenian violence in Baku and the reluctance of Soviet Army troops to aid besieged Armenian villages in Azerbaijan has magnified the anger here.
But Armenian opposition groups are reluctant to translate that anger into an independence movement. Instead, they have manifested it in a fervent movement for the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed enclave of Christian Armenians in Muslim Azerbaijan.
The difference, nationalist leaders and Armenian scholars here say, is rooted in the fear that an independent Armenia, surrounded as it is by its ancient Muslim enemies, could not survive without the protection of the Soviet state.
``We have lots of neighbors, both from the west and the east, who belong to the same nation, with a different religion than ours, whose national desire since the end of the last century has been to unify the two parts of their nation,'' says Karlen Dallakian, a deputy to the Armenian Supreme Soviet. ``The single island standing in their way is Armenia, and they don't hide their desire to annihilate Armenians. That makes us think very seriously about our future.''
At rallies and demonstrations, nationalist leaders call for top Armenian government officials to resign. They have said they are ready to assume full political power in Armenia if the authorities fail to defend the republic.
``For two years now, Soviet government and Soviet troops never adequately defended Armenia,'' said Levon Ter Petrosyan, a member of the Karabakh Committee, said at rally last month. ``We don't need these kinds of leaders, this kind of government.''
In more recent private interviews, however, opposition leaders here are talking cooperation and conciliation with the central Soviet government. They are calling home the volunteer army they organized to defend their republic and giving back most of the weapons they stole from Soviet Army garrisons.
``We realize of course from this affair that the current leaders don't intend to carry out a revolutionary policy. That's why naturally the people took it on themselves to solve the problems that the government can't solve,'' said Mr. Petrosyan in an interview Feb. 9.
``So we come to the conclusion that the only way out of the present situation is the democratization of society within the structures of the current state.''
With the lessons of recent violence in mind, opposition leaders are once again focusing on the relatively moderate political program they adopted in a congress two months before the current crisis with Azerbaijan arose: to build the republic's political autonomy and economic base within the Soviet state.
``Our movement is pursuing the final independence of Armenia, but now, referring to the political situation in the Soviet Union and around Armenia, we are not concerned with that goal,'' Avedik Ishkanian, a member of the Armenia All-National Movement, said in a Feb. 2 interview. ``We want to become more strong now, in these days, to organize a powerful defense system in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.''
``If the government doesn't protect us from this pressing danger, it is quite possible that the movement will take power into its own hands, Mr. Ishkanian said.
Elections to the Supreme Soviet - Armenia's legislature - are scheduled this spring. The leaders of the opposition movement here say they are seeking at least to win more legislative seats to pursue their program to transform the politics and economy of the republic.
Even so, the movement continues to work with the government to solve problems where the government has the means. Several Karabakh Committee leaders sit on the Emergency Commission formed by government and Communist Party officials to deal with the crisis. This has allowed them to get government money to help refugees, to use military helicopters to send medical supplies to Armenian villages in Azerbaijan, and to take portable radio stations to those villages to reopen communications with Armenia.