THE movement for democratic reform and self-determination in Soviet Armenia is no different from popular calls heard recently throughout Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, and other Soviet republics. It is an affirmative, nationwide effort to introduce representative government and basic civil liberties, which constitute the basis for a stable, operative democracy. In fact, it was Armenia, the Soviet Union's smallest republic, which in February 1988 set the precedent for the successful massive campaigns of public pressure that later reached Estonia and Lithuania, Berlin and Budapest.
Despite the clear connection between these developments, the United States government and media have distorted American public opinion. From the opinionmakers' vantage point, nationalism in Eastern Europe and the Baltics is an acceptable phenomenon because there it focuses on the overthrow of oppressive regimes. As such, these movements have been viewed as moderate, legitimate expressions of political grievance, natural outgrowths of glasnost and perestroika.
In Armenia, however, the movement for rule of law, responsible government, electoral reform, and environmental improvements has been colored as a negative strain of nationalism, a dangerous threat to Gorbachev's reform experiment. This is so not only because the Armenian quest for ultimate independence has jolted seven decades of predictable relations between the center and a remote satellite - Moscow and Yerevan in this case - but also because it has contained a territorial component that has spurred b rutal opposition by a neighboring Soviet republic.
Soviet Azerbaijan, itself falling prey to a calculated Kremlin policy of diverting anti-Soviet resentment by playing off the empire's nationalities against each other, has reacted with violence to the Armenian movement. At the core of the Armenian campaign and the Azerbaijani response is the old Armenian province of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Josef Stalin in 1923 awarded to Azerbaijan, notwithstanding its Armenian roots and Armenian majority.
Since then, the inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh, joined by their brethren in Armenia, have complained of the cultural repression and economic discrimination brought by Azerbaijani dominion, and have petitioned Moscow in peaceful fashion for approval of their union with Armenia. They have sought to determine their own collective future by virtue of their juridical status as an autonomous region of the USSR and under Article 70 of the Soviet Constitution guaranteeing the right to self-determination.
Seventy years of appeals to Moscow came to a head in February 1988, when the Armenians, impelled by the prospects of perestroika, began to test its integrity by taking the struggle to the streets in massive demonstrations that highlighted Gorbachev as a champion of national rights and self-determination.
The Azerbaijanis' response to this perceived affront to their sovereignty has taken the form of pogroms in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait in March 1988, mass deportations of Armenians throughout 1988 and 1989, the brutal massacres of Baku in January 1990, and a continuing economic blockade of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. They have turned a peaceful, constitutional movement into a violent civil conflict, and they have been abetted by Soviet unwillingness to rectify Stalin's nationality blunders and to intervene in timely fashion to protect the lives of Armenians, Russians, Jews, and other minorities living in Azerbaijan.
In Baku's bloody January last year, the Red Army appeared on the scene only after the pogroms against the Armenian minority were over and Moscow's authority was in jeopardy. In any event, the armed intervention in Azerbaijan was excessive, and Armenian calls for protection did not warrant a crackdown after the fact which took scores of Azerbaijani lives and infringed on the sovereignty of a constituent republic of the Soviet Union.
In all this, of course, Nagorno-Karabakh is key. Its population cannot understand why peaceful petitions to join Armenia have caused such a violent response, which has escalated into near civil war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. They can't comprehend why the US government and media fail to see that the root issue is the right of an autonomous region to exercise its right of self-determination. It is this desire to put into practice fundamental human and political rights that has been misunderstood as r eligious strife, territorial dispute, unbridled nationalism.
Moscow, too, must come to understand the need to approach crises at their core. Fearing the creation of precedents for other nationality problems is no excuse. In a democratic society, federative or otherwise, political decisions must be made on the merits of each particular case.
The Soviet leadership's role is to strike the balance between granting additional autonomy to the republics and respecting their sovereignty and not buckling under radical violence. The Armenian-Azerbaijani dilemma can be solved only when Moscow and Baku realize that it is the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, and no one else, who by free referendum must determine their region's political future.
From the Armenian perspective, the channels of dialogue will be open if the other parties are committed to the rule of law. Until that comes to pass, the people of Armenia will have no choice but to continue organizing the defense of its frontiers and the security of Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenian community.