DURING recent months, world attention has been riveted on ethnic strife in the Caucasus and the tragic Armenian earthquake. But another issue - the ecological destruction of Armenia - also explains Armenians' anger at Mikhail Gorbachev. At a rally of 100,000 people in Yerevan last autumn, the Karabakh Committee issued a manifesto of the new Armenian National Movement, a popular front similar to those in the Baltic republics pressing for greater autonomy. Among other things, the manifesto called for veto power over federal projects constructed in Armenia, a demand intended to halt the environmental rape of the region.
In his December speech to the United Nations, Gorbachev accompanied his conventional arms cut with a promise to remit the Kremlin's (nonexistent) third-world debt and to join ranks to eliminate the ``threat to the world's environment.''
Observing that, ``In a number of regions, the state of the environment is simply frightening,'' Gorbachev proposed a UN center for emergency environmental assistance. A disarmed, ``nonviolent'' world, he said, must wage a united struggle against hunger, poverty, and ``aggressions against nature.''
Those lofty sentiments may ring hollow to Armenians, who have vainly tried to elicit the General Secretary's concern for his own backyard. Three years earlier, a group of Armenian academicians sent a letter to the republic's Presidium of the Academy of Sciences, warning that environmental trends threatened to turn Armenia into a wasteland. Their appeal fell on deaf ears.
At the time of the 27th Party Congress in 1986, thousands of similar letters were sent to Gorbachev and the Congress by individual citizens, industrial enterprises, and academic institutions. When no reply was received, the academicians released their letter to samizdat from where it made its way to Novoye Russkoye Slovo, a Russian-language 'emigr'e newspaper published in New York. Their account depicts the catastrophic environmental condition in the Soviet Union.