LONG before most of the world had heard of Azerbaijan or Tadzhikistan, Soviet ethnographers were tracking - with increasing alarm - the deepening social tensions in Transcaucasia and Central Asia. They could see trouble coming, and filed reports highlighting the areas most likely to explode with unrest. Did the Kremlin ignore the warnings, or are the problems so profound that even the best of intentions could not have averted violence? And now that trouble has started, what can be done to restore order in such a way that does not engender further bad feelings?
These questions were at the top of the agenda yesterday as the Supreme Soviet met in closed session to discuss the situation in Azerbaijan and Armenia. And even as policymakers grapple with the aftermath of riots in those republics and in Dushanbe, the capital of the republic of Tadzhikistan, trouble is brewing in other urban areas of the Soviet south.
``Violence in one city inspires the same in others,'' says Sergei Cheshko, a Central Asia specialist at Moscow's Institute of Ethnography. ``There is a chain reaction, absolutely.''
He declines to predict the next hot spots, but it is not difficult to imagine where trouble could hit next. The same rumors that sparked rioting in Dushanbe - that Armenian refugees were going to take scarce housing - are now spreading all over Central Asia. In Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, word was going around last week that all Armenians must be out of the city by today or face massacres.
The official news agency Tass, quoting the Interior Ministry, reported on Feb. 16 that leaflets calling for the eviction of Russians from Central Asia have appeared in areas of Uzbekistan bordering on Tadzhikistan. Anti-Russian leaflets were found in Tashkent. And, Tass reported, a man was arrested in the eastern Uzbek city of Samarkand with anti-Armenian leaflets.
In Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan, thousands demonstrated on Saturday to protest ``economic exploitation'' by Moscow and nuclear testing in the republic.
Official anxiety over the prospect of a general collapse of law and order, especially in the southern minority republics, was reflected in a front-page Pravda editorial on Feb. 17, which hinted that a crackdown may be coming.
The public wants stability, wrote the Communist Party daily, ``and the key question of the day is: On what basis will stability come? With the help of developing democratic institutions, on the basis of inter-ethnic harmony? Or through a `tightening of the screws,' through the methods of the past?''
In addition, the Supreme Soviet is working out a law on ethnic unrest, which will provide for tougher punishment of people found guilty of instigating inter-ethnic conflicts. ``It can be used as a weapon against those who consciously start - for reasons that may be far removed from inter-ethnic differences - pogroms and violence against other nationalities,'' says Sergei Stankevich, a member of the parliamentary committee working out the new law. ``We already have such articles in the criminal code, but they're not implemented. ... Furthermore, it's not enough just to adopt this law, there needs to be restructuring in the work of the procuracy and other organs that protect people's rights.''
But ultimately, settling Central Asian unrest requires tackling the underlying causes. In Tadzhikistan, the No. 1 problem is housing, says ethnographer Lidiya Monogarova. The birthrate is extremely high; a family typically has eight or 10 children.
Unemployment is also very high. According to Sunday's Pravda, in Dushanbe alone, a city of 552,000, there are some 70,000 unemployed.
A problem of qualification also exists. During the industrialization of Central Asia in the 1960s and '70s, the local largely peasant population did not have the technical skills for factory work, and thus Russians and other nonnatives were moved into the area.