ETHNIC violence in the Caucasus region has defied Mikhail Gorbachev's political skills for two years now. It's a setting, and a conflict, less suited to good-natured verbal sparring with the crowds, as in Lithuania.
Long-held antipathies between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azeris have flared into virtual war. Most disturbing to the Kremlin, combatants are getting support and arms from local authorities. Bonds to Moscow are fraying; police and other officials are easily caught up in the ethnic passions.
Mr. Gorbachev has until now avoided use of substantial force, choosing persuasion instead. Top aides have been dispatched to Azerbaijan and Armenia. But they apparently had little success.
The most recent rumbling in the Caucasus started two years ago in the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, administered by Azerbaijan but largely Armenian in population. Armenians wanted the the region incorporated in their republic. Azeris, viewing Nagorno-Karabakh as an integral part of their land and the Armenians there as relative newcomers, reacted sharply. Azeri rioters in the city of Sumgait rampaged against Armenians.
Moscow rebuffed calls for adjustments in the borders of the republics, knowing similar demands lurked elsewhere.
Helping stir the explosive political brew are national movements in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Spokesmen for the Popular Front in Azerbaijan said they intended to resist any forces - including Soviet troops - that interfere with the ethnic struggle. Armenians, meanwhile, lined up to be airlifted to defend their kin in Nagorno-Karabakh.
This crisis in the Soviet south is utterly different from the independence movement in the Baltics. But both developments help shape perceptions of Gorbachev's power. Authorities in Armenia and Azerbaijan, observing the Soviet president's feinting and backtracking in Lithuania last week, could draw their own conclusions. In their view, Moscow's policy line may be growing blurry. The flexibility so admired by Gorbachev watchers in the West disconcerts party regulars in the Soviet provinces.
Certainly stakes are higher in the Baltics, where succession is threatened. And the options in the south are narrowed by the scale of fighting there. The Armenians, after all, are calling on Moscow to send in the troops.
Still, ethnic flare-ups divert attention and energy from Gorbachev's crucial economic agenda. Siberia's disgruntled miners could change that, however. They struck last summer, calling for new management and better living standards. Moscow promised a lot, but has delivered little. They're talking strike again.