For the millions of Soviet television viewers who watch the nightly news program Vremya (Time), it was a remarkable experience. On the night of July 19, instead of its usual lineup of bland official reports, Vremya broadcast a no-holds-barred debate among the country’s top officials. The subject: a bitter territorial dispute between the southern Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Addressing a session of the Supreme Soviet’s Presidium—the national parliament’s 39-member executive council—representatives from the feuding republics angrily blamed each other for the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, the predominantly Christian, ethnic Armenian region that has been controlled by mainly Moslem Azerbaijan since 1923. And Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sharply rebuked both sides for creating a dangerous impasse that threatened his program of economic and political reform, known as perestroika. Said Gorbachev: “It is the adversaries of perestroika, conservative and corrupt elements who waxed rich in the period of stagnation, who speculate on the problems of Nagorno-Karabakh.” With those harsh words, Gorbachev
sided decisively with Soviet hard-liners who have opposed making major concessions to the Armenians. And immediately after the debate—broadcast the night after it actually took place— the Presidium took Gorbachev’s cue by voting to reject Armenia’s demand for the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Angry Armenian nationalists faced the choice of yielding to Moscow's order or persisting in a perilous defiance
A series of demonstrations and general strikes in support of that demand have all but paralysed Nagorno-Karabakh for two months and the Armenian capital of Yerevan since early July. At least 36 people have been killed. By taking a firm stand against the Armenian protesters, Soviet authorities sent a message to nationalist elements in other Soviet republics. Declared President Andrei Gromyko:
“Nagorno-Karabakh is not a local issue. It is the concern of the whole of the Soviet people.”
Indeed, the Soviet leadership has been faced with growing unrest among ethnic minorities. Gorbachev has admitted that he has been criticized by more conservative Communists who feel that his reformist policies have encouraged protests. Clearly trying to counter his critics, Gorbachev toughened his position last week. In his sharply worded speech to the Presidium, he said that “nationalist venom” among Armenians and Azerbaijanis had led to a “political dead end.” Said Gorbachev: “They have gone crazy about a wild, inhuman idea: let hundreds and perhaps even thousands of people die, if only this bolsters the nation’s spirit.”
Following Gorbachev’s lead, the Soviet media suggested that opponents of perestroika provoked the demonstrations in Armenia in an attempt to discredit reform. The daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda interviewed a 26-year-old protester, Viktor Panosyan, who was quoted as saying that he had been incited to riot as “part of a well-planned provocation.”
Still, the Presidium acknowledged that the cultural and constitutional rights of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh had been breached. And
it passed a resolution that renewed earlier pledges by Moscow to bring about economic, cultural and social reforms in the region. Most significantly, Soviet officials said that they will consider raising Nagorno-Karabakh’s constitutional status by making it an autonomous republic —still within Azerbaijan, but with increased power to administer local affairs. Said Soviet
Interior Minister Alexander Vlasov: “We do not dismiss the merits of such a suggestion.” But the Kremlin also made it clear that it had no patience for protesters. Vlasov said that strike organizers could face criminal charges, and VicePresident Pyotr Demichev warned that Nagorno-Karabakh factories could be permanently closed and their workers
sent to other regions if work stoppages continued. To reinforce the point, the government stripped leading Armenian activist Paruyr Ayrikyan of his Soviet citizenship and ordered his expulsion abroad. Ayrikyan, 39, was arrested in March on charges of defaming the Soviet state.
Western diplomats said that the next move will be determined by the reaction of Armenian protesters. In Yerevan last week, thousands of people attended rallies on successive nights and shouted down officials who attempted to explain the Presidium’s decisions. And on Friday, a one-day general strike closed factories in the city. In Nagorno-Karabakh, few Armenians returned to work—despite pressure from Soviet authorities to end strikes that have resulted in the loss or spoilage of millions of dollars worth of stored goods and foodstuffs. Said one Western diplomat: “Any further protests will likely be interpreted as a direct rebuff to Gorbachev.”
At week’s end, authorities said that Armenian protest organizers had called for a one-week moratorium on mass meetings. During that break, Armenians will have to decide between yielding to Moscow or persisting in a perilous defiance.
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