For the dissolving Soviet Union, the lessons - and threat - of Yugoslavia are already all too close to home

THE world seems to be standing by while the Yugoslav civil war rages on. More than a dozen cease-fires have come and gone along with the mediators that negotiated them. Meanwhile the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army has pounded the Croatian city of Vukovar into rubble, dropped shells on the medieval streets of Dubrovnik and is preparing to advance on its next targets.Here in Moscow the term "Yugoslavization" is now common currency in the political debate. President Mikhail Gorbachev uses "Yugoslavia" to refer to the fate of those who wish to walk away from a federal union. For others, the lesson of Yugoslavia is the inevitability of civil war when national aspirations are ignored. And it shows the need to intervene before a conflict becomes a full-scale war, when the blood already spilled makes it difficult to return to the table. This is no longer an abstract question in this capital. "Yugoslavization" has already arrived in the Soviet Union. And neither the Kremlin nor world governments seem prepared to act at the moment when another tragedy can still be averted. Right now the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan are on the verge of turning almost four years of skirmishes into a full-scale war. The battle between the two Caucasian states centers on the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, included by a flick of the Kremlin's pen in 1923 as an 'autonomous region' within Azerbaijan, although it lies mere miles from Armenian territory. The conflict between Christian Armenians and their Muslim Turkic neighbors has already claimed hundreds of l ives and made hundreds of thousands refugees on both sides. In late September, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev set up a mediation effort, bringing both parties to the table for the first time. But the talks broke off after Azerbaijan cut off gas pipelines to Armenia this month. The parliament of Azerbaijan was expected to discuss - and almost certainly pass - a set of measures to dissolve Nagorno-Karabakh as a separate region, and declare martial law in the region. Armenian Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, stopping in Moscow yesterday on his way to Western Europe, calls these steps "tantamount to a declaration of war." The Armenians are appealing to the Russian government and to the Union authorities as well as to the world community to intervene before it is too late. "We don't want this to become another Yugoslavia," Mr. Hovannisian says. "That would have disastrous implications for all of the former Soviet Union." If full-scale war breaks out, "it will wreak havoc and destruction," the foreign minister predicts. The Armenians, who carry close to their hearts the collective memory of their genocide at the hands of the Turks beginning in 1915, are outnumbered and outgunned but prepared to resist. A recent dispatch by a Reuters correspondent from a besieged Armenian village described young guerrillas saving a last bullet to kill themselves with. "We will be like the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto" Hovannisian says. This war also has its Reichstag fire. On Nov. 20, a helicopter carrying 20 people including senior Azeri officials, Soviet military and Interior Ministry officials and mediators from Russia and Kazakhstan crashed in the Karabakh mountains. The Azeris claim the helicopter was deliberately shot down while Armenians cite reports of heavy fog. Yugoslavization has come to the Soviet Union. Now the question is - does anyone care?

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