ON the eve of his landslide election as Armenia's first president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan displayed confidence in the path toward independence that his mountainous republic has chosen. "I have shown a peaceful way to complete political independence," the then-chairman of the Armenian parliament asserted.But beneath the surety, Mr. Ter-Petrosyan betrays signs of uncertainty, even more of irritation. He hoped to be rewarded by both Moscow and the West for having avoided confrontation in his country's careful course toward independence. Armenia expected that the recognition of the independence of the Baltic republics after August's failed coup would lead in turn to acceptance of their full freedom from the Soviet Union. Instead, Ter-Petrosyan accuses the West of repeating its error of refusing to recognize Baltic independence. And by doing so, he worries, it is again encouraging the illusion that a political union can be restored, a theme promoted by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. "After recognition of the Baltic countries, there is an opinion in the West that the Baltic countries must not serve as a precedent for other republics," Ter-Petrosyan observed in an interview with the Monitor. "And Gorbachev was fast to take up this opinion.... I think it is a very dangerous position because it is opposed to the objective processes which are going on in the USSR now. It can lead to a new aggravation of the situation. "The West must change its position completely now. It must give a boost to the complete independence of the republics, and simultaneously it must spare neither effort nor expense to help those republics get their independence peacefully." Ter-Petrosyan's words are by no means those of an extremist. The former scholar of ancient languages has won a reputation as the most pragmatic of the nationalists who have come to power in many former Soviet republics. He has eschewed the bombastic rhetoric of Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia and the tough nonparticipation in all union functions adopted by Moldavia. Alone among those seeking full political independence, on Oct. 18, Armenia signed the treaty advocated by Mr. Gorbachev to form an eco nomic community. Ter-Petrosyan sees this moderate approach, which has been heavily criticized here by more radical nationalists for being too soft towards Moscow, as a way to meet Western concerns about the breakup of the Soviet Union. "The West is afraid of confrontation and collision. It is afraid that republics seceding from the federation will cause great problems for the USSR and for the West. From this point of view, the West feels that it must not support republics that are radical in their ideas and that are going to cut all their ties. Armenia serves as an example for the West of how to reach independence peacefully, without this confrontation and collision." Since taking power from the Communists last year, Ter-Petrosyan's Armenian National Movement has pursued a carefully crafted path toward independence, asserting control over Armenian life while avoiding an open break with Moscow. This stance comes in part from Armenia's vulnerable geographic and political position. Christian Armenia has traditionally looked to Russia as a protector against its historical Muslim Turkic adversaries in neighboring Turkey and Azerbaijan. Armenia has been embroiled in recent years in a bitter and bloody conflict over the fate of the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh which lies within Azerbaijan. Alone among republics seeking independence, Armenia also agreed to follow the complex procedure for secession called for in Soviet law. The Sept. 21 referendum on independence was scheduled six months earlier, according to the law's requirements. Gorbachev has frequently cited this law, demanding the Baltics follow it to gain their freedom. The Baltics steadfastly refused. The Baltics insisted that their forced incorporation into the Soviet Union was illegal, based on the secret 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union preceding the invasion and division of Poland. But in Ter-Petrosyan's view, because Armenia's referendum was held in keeping with the Soviet law, their claim to independence has at least the same juridical basis as the Baltics'. The Armenian decision to join the recently formed economic community was consistent with this pragmatic approach. As Ter-Petrosyan explained to Armenia's parliament after signing the treaty, Armenia will pursue "complete political independence," while at the same time, "the maximum participation in all constructive processes" going on in the former Soviet Union. "Levon Ter-Petrosyan's policy is realistic," comments Hovig Eordekian, deputy editor of the newspaper Azg (Nation). "Participation in the interrepublican process is normal because the Armenian economy is so integrated into the Soviet Union." But Ter-Petrosyan admits concern that Gorbachev is trying to use the need for economic cooperation to push for a renewed political union. Indeed, Gorbachev has circulated a draft treaty of political union and has spoken often of his desire to push it through quickly. "Gorbachev is insisting on repeating his mistake that brought this country to catastrophe," says Ter-Petrosyan. "Once again the economy is being sacrificed to political aims." He refers to the attempt earlier this spring to forge a new union treaty which ultimately was blocked by the attempted coup in August. The hopes of Armenia and other republics seeking to leave the union are pinned more on Russian leader Boris Yeltsin. But even Mr. Yeltsin is vulnerable to political opinion, Ter-Petrosyan observes. "On one hand, Yeltsin is a realist in policy. That's why he understands that priority must be given to economic questions. Unfortunately he has to yield to public pressure in Russia." But Ter-Petrosyan is above all a patient man. In his coming visits to Moscow and abroad, he says, "I will try to persuade" Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and the West that ultimately Armenian independence can coexist with a new structure of cooperation among the former Soviet republics.