THE Soviet Union's ``nationalities problem'' first burst into the Western media three years ago when Armenians and Azeris clashed over the disputed autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The commentary then was that the Stalinist lid was coming off the nationalities kettle, and it wouldn't easily be put back on. That has proved truer than most people could have foreseen. Nationalist movements are at full boil in most Soviet republics, and the Kremlin has little ability to turn down the heat.
Moscow's intervention, in fact, is having just the opposite effect in the Caucasus. The troops that swept through Armenian-populated villages within Azerbaijan last week, purportedly to disarm illegal militias, brought ringing denunciations from the nationalistic regime of Armenia's President Levon Ter-Petrosyan.
To Armenians, the Soviet soldiers were colluding with Azeris to harass and expel Armenians. Armenia's determination to leave the Soviet Union, instead of signing on to Mikhail Gorbachev's scheme for preserving the union, was seen as the cause of Moscow's new militancy.
A negotiated settlement to the conflict is the only reasonable course. But for now, emotions are raw and politics tangled.
Under Mr. Ter-Petrosyan, Armenia is moving inexorably toward independence, using the ponderous procedures laid out by the Gorbachev government: a referendum on succession, followed by a five-year transition period, then another referendum. The long wait will be filled with efforts to build a functioning market economy, a process well under way through privatization of land and means of production.
But Armenia's hopes for independence also require reasonably good relations with its neighbors. Ter-Petrosyan recognizes this, and has called for a moderation of anti-Turkey feelings in Armenia. At some point, the tensions with Azerbaijan will have to be reduced too.