SOVIET Interior Ministry troops have enforced a tense truce in the ethnic conflict that erupted this week in the Soviet republic of Moldavia, according to reports from the scene. The troops were deployed last Sunday to prevent a clash between ethnic Moldavians and a small Turkish minority who have declared the independence of their Gagauz region. Rival units of nationalist ``volunteer'' militias have agreed to withdraw from contested territory in southern Moldavia and talks have begun between the Moldavian authorities and Gagauz leader, the official Tass news agency reported yesterday.
But Moldavian nationalist and government leaders have denounced the Soviet government and the Interior Ministry troops for failing to control the separatist movements.
``The USSR Interior Ministry troops sent to southern areas of the republic are ignoring the government of Moldova [the republic's Romanian name] and supporting separatist intentions,'' the Moldavian Popular Front declared on Moldavian radio, according to Interfax, an independent Soviet news agency. The statement called for secession from the Soviet Union, withdrawal of Soviet troops, and dispatch of United Nations peacekeeping forces.
Leaders of the Moldavian Communist Party flew to Moscow yesterday to meet with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and demand that Moscow take firmer action, Interfax added. Thousands of Moldavians rallied outside the Communist Party headquarters in Kishinev on Wednesday night, where the party leadership was meeting, part of a wave of attacks on the party in the republic.
The conflict in Moldavia is only the most extreme case, to date, of the splintering force of nationalism within the Soviet Union. After elections last Sunday in the Caucasus republic of Georgia, nationalists appear headed for clear victory over the Georgia Communist Party. According to partial results, the nationalist ``Round Table - Free Georgia'' bloc of opposition parties received almost 60 percent of the vote, compared with 25 percent for the Communists.
Nationalism has not only been the driving force behind the drive for greater independence for the 15 republics that make up the Union, but also for smaller ethnic minorities within the republics. In Moldavia, the nationalist-controlled government has been challenged by demands for separation from ethnic Turkish and Russian minorities.
Mr. Gorbachev has pointed to Moldavia as the prime example, for him, of the consequence of what one weekly called ``separatism mania.'' In a speech to the Soviet parliament last month, he argued that the Moldavians were only reaping the consequences of their own separatism. Some nationalist leaders have accused the Kremlin, in turn, of encouraging the growth of such movements to undermine the republican governments that challenge its power.
The Moldavia conflict has grown since earlier this summer, following the victory of Moldavian nationalists of Romanian descent in elections. Moldavia was created in 1940 from former Romanian territory taken over by the Red Army.
The Moldavian nationalists, who seek closer ties to Romania, were confronted first by the Gagauz, who declared their own separate status in August, and then by the Russian minority living on the industrialized left bank of the Dniester River who announced their own republic in September. The Moldavian government backed the formation of militia to block Gagauz plans to hold their own elections.