YOUNG Armenian boys now climb up to drink their sodas and gab on the empty gray pedestal that stands in the central square of this ancient city. The glowering bronze statue of Lenin is gone. The red flag, too, is nowhere to be seen, replaced by the tricolor of the short-lived but revered Armenian Republic, whose two-year existence was snuffed out by the Soviets in 1920. Far from Moscow, in its mountain fastness, Armenia is well on its way to independence. Without the bloody drama of Lithuania or the bombast of neighboring Georgia, Armenia's nationalist government is moving at a deliberate pace to restore its lost freedom.
"The Armenian nation is now convinced that the Soviet empire is a disintegrating empire," Armenian leader Levon Ter-Petrosyan says, with barely any expression on his long, serious face.
Since he was elected as head of the Armenian parliament last August, following parliamentary elections, Mr. Ter-Petrosyan has given Armenia skillful leadership. He speaks with the calm precision befitting a scholar of ancient Middle Eastern languages, but also with the determination of a veteran of the underground independence movement that emerged to lead mass demonstrations in early 1988.
Alone among the six Soviet republics that have proclaimed their desire to leave the union, the Armenian government has decided to do so strictly according to the Soviet law on secession. That law requires a two-thirds majority for independence, followed by a five-year transition period, capped by a Soviet parliament vote. In accordance with that law, Armenia will hold a vote on Sept. 21, after which it is prepared to follow the required transition period.
"Our government is in favor of pursuing a serious, quiet strategy that avoids confrontation in the process of achieving self-determination," Ter-Petrosyan says.
It is a strategy well-suited to the conditions born of Armenia's historical legacy. Armenia is by far the most homogeneous republic in the Soviet Union, with Armenians making up more than 93 percent of its 3.3 million people. There are no national minorities, especially Russians, for Moscow to use as an internal lever against independence. Armenia can also look for help from the almost 2 million Armenians of the diaspora, most of whom fled the Turkish massacres of 1915, which depopulated most of histori cal Armenia.
But Soviet Armenia's geographic and economic position is hardly enviable. The land is small and mountainous, suited to growing grapes and fruit and raising sheep, but poor in grain and dairy products. Armenia's only international border crossing is with Turkey, its historic enemy. And the transportation lines from Russia run through Georgia and Azerbaijan and have been frequently cut by blockade.
The yearning for independence has been activated by the loss of trust in Russia as Christian Armenia's historic protector against its Muslim, Turkic neighbors. Since 1988, Armenia has been embroiled in a violent dispute with neighboring Azerbaijan. The center of that dispute is the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated area within Azerbaijan, which seeks to rejoin the Armenian republic. That conflict led to attacks on Armenians resident in Azerbaijan, in Sumgait in 1988, in Baku i n 1989, with constant battles along the border continuing till today. "The Armenian nation had rooted in itself a psychology that participation in the Soviet Union was a guarantee of its security and development," Ter-Petrosyan says. "Today the Armenian nation is convinced that the Soviet Union no longer represents that guarantee."
A long transition is useful to set in place what the Armenian leader calls his republic's "own guarantees." One is the creation of an Armenian defense force, already visible in the special units of militia who serve on the border. The Armenian government has also asked that all conscripts to the Soviet Army be allowed to serve on their own territory, a request Armenian officials say has been granted de facto.
The government is also intent on increasing the small percentage of the Armenian economy - about 10 to 15 percent - that is not linked to the Soviet economy. Their main means is a campaign of privatization, unprecedented in the Soviet Union for its speed and scale. About 60 percent of all land has been distributed to private owners, breaking up most of the collective farms in Armenia. Beginning last week, retail stores and small businesses are being auctioned off.
Threats from the central government that Armenia will be cut off from budget subsidies and goods are dismissed by officials here. Ultimately, Armenia is looking overseas to developing an independent foreign policy. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Armenia's transition strategy is its effort to develop cordial ties with Turkey, including commercial links. Ter-Petrosyan's recent meeting with the Turkish ambassador to Moscow was greeted by demonstrators who accused him of betraying the cause of res toring Armenia's lost territory and gaining recognition of the Armenian genocide.
"But to be realistic compels us to conclude that we have no other path," Ter-Petrosyan says. "Independent of our own wishes, Russian or Soviet forces may leave this region."
This path is not without its critics. On the more radical side, Armenian nationalist Paruyr Hayrikyan accuses his former comrades of "looking to Moscow." The longtime activist, who served some 17 years in Soviet prisons, calls for immediate independence, ignoring Soviet law.
The Armenian Communist Party, which holds a large chunk of seats in the parliament, accuses the government of moving too fast toward independence. It seeks to blame deteriorating economic conditions and the failure to solve the Karabakh problem on the break with Moscow. But the party is a disappearing force, spending its time now fending off a recent parliament decision to nationalize the party's property.
Ter-Petrosyan brushes off a decree by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev voiding the nationalization, calmly observing that Moscow has more serious problems on its plate. "That means," he says with a rare smile, "that tactically we chose the right time."