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Defiant Armenians Take Stand


THE blue and red flag of Soviet Armenia was hauled down from the post on top of the elegant red-stone parliament building in Yerevan on Friday. In its place flew the maroon, blue, and gold tricolor that heralds the first steps toward a clean break from Moscow in the ninth Soviet republic to declare its sovereignty this year.

No parliamentary deputy, not even the remnants of Armenia's former communist regime, voted against the sovereignty declaration. According to the resolution, it is now called ``the Republic of Armenia'' and is ``a self-governing state with the supremacy of state authority and independence.''

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Yet many deputies to the republic's new parliament say they are nervous about the future. Despite newly elected President Levon Ter-Petrosian's staunch following among the nationalists, he has not yet brought armed partisans under the control of Armenia's new parliament.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev issued a decree last month under which unofficial armed groups must disarm and disband. The move was aimed principally at Armenia. The alternative was to face the Soviet Army. Rather than experience certain civil war, Mr. Ter-Petrosian, who was elected on Aug. 4, agreed to try to rope in Armenia's defiant partisans.

In the courtyard outside the parliament building, burly men in green camouflage fatigues amble about carrying submachine guns. Some play cards in a nearby room. There is also a group of bare-headed policemen, standing in a circle, smoking. Their job is to check the credentials of visitors. The gunmen are partisans who guard the deputies and the president.

They come from the many Armenian armed groups that began to spring up in February 1988, when conflict flared with neighboring Azerbaijan over the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, just across the border in the republic of Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabach's population is mostly Armenians who demand to be incorporated into Armenia. Azerbaijan insists on the status quo. Moscow, it seems, also prefers not to meddle with the divisive schemes that Joseph Stalin devised to protect Soviet unity.

Frequent fighting breaks out, particularly in the narrow corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The enclave is blockaded by Azerbaijan, and there is no road traffic to Armenia. Soviet tanks and Interior Ministry troops were sent in last week, amid reports that Armenians had fired shells into Azerbaijan, destroying more that 100 house.

As the tanks went in, Ter-Petrosian met the Soviet commander and unnamed Azerbaijani leaders. Armenians pulled back - ``driven back'' said the official Soviet media - and the conflict subsided for the moment.

The self-styled Armenian National Army (ANA) is the largest paramilitary group. ``Colonel'' Hamlet Mkartchian, a senior officer who said in an interview that he was in charge of security in the capital, put the ANA's strength at 150,000. Others scoff at such a high figure.

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The night air in Yerevan has been rent with unexplained gunfire for months. Cars are stolen at gunpoint and there are armed robberies. Paramilitary gangs pull off daring raids on Soviet military arsenals.

Mr. Gorbachev accuses them of stealing their weapons from the Soviet Army.

Mr. Mkartchian and his men are quartered about 200 yards from the parliament building in a large old house amid a city-center demolition site.

Mkartchian occupies an upper office, reached by way of open wooden stairs and a veranda. On guard is a young man in a black T-shirt holding a Soviet-made Makarov pistol and a knife. Another, in a makeshift green uniform, nurses an AK-47 rifle with bayonet. A third holds a black truncheon, smacking it into his palm from time to time.

Sitting in the gloom at a small desk beneath a large Armenian tricolor, Mkartchian wears a Benetton T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, with a pistol at his hip. On the walls, there are assembly charts for rifles and pistols and glossy posters, one of a sweating Sylvester Stallone, another of a grimacing Arnold Schwarzenegger.

``I cannot say if we are loyal to President Ter-Petrosian or not,'' said Mkartchian, a former electrician. ``But I have nothing against our president. We just gave him some suggestions and we are waiting to see what kind of relationship we can have.''

The ANA is demanding to be the core of the new Armenian security force. Mkartchian hinted at violence between rival groups if it was not. He was clearly disgruntled that the ANA had not been chosen to guard the parliament.

Ter-Petrosian's big problem is not just young Armenians spoiling for a fight. The Soviet authorities seem to have conceded much of the republic to the partisans. As a result law and order is breaking down. Even the traffic laws are no longer enforced, making driving a stimulating experience.

Asked how many guns had been stolen from the Soviet Army, Mkartchian said: ``Well, no arms have come in from outside and you cannot buy guns in Soviet shops. But many have been homemade.'' Not one gun, he warned, would be handed in to the Soviet authorities.

If Moscow sends troops would his men fight? ``Well, maybe.''

The declaration of sovereignty comes at a time when the 3.3 million Armenians have had enough of Moscow's rule. Parliamentary deputies say they at last have a leadership they can trust.

Even without the disastrous economic impact of the 1988 earthquake, development has been slow and investment small. There is little gasoline at the pumps. There are long lines at rail and bus stations.

Armenia is small, surrounded by traditional enemies, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey. More than 1 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Turks in 1915. Nine-tenths of old Armenia lies over the border in Turkey, including the Armenians' sacred Mount Ararat. Back to back with Soviet Georgia, the two republics form a tiny Christian stronghold surrounded by Muslims. Help comes from the 5 million Armenians who live abroad, but a reformed Soviet Union might provide security for the future.

Radical deputies like Ashot Navasardian say no. They want immediate secession from Moscow whatever the risk. ``If we continue like this, we'll end up tied to a new Soviet federal treaty. We want freedom and independence to establish our statehood and never again be enslaved.''

Nagorno-Karabakh and the stormy relationship with Azerbaijan present the most concern. So if the enclave is the core of the trouble, why continue to claim it? Ter-Petrosian is firm that, under an agreement signed between Yerevan and the Armenian majority in Nagorno-Karabakh in December 1989, Azerbaijan has no claim to the territory.

``We are one,'' he said during an interview in his office next to the parliament chamber, while a heavy armed partisan paced outside.

``Simply, a treaty has been signed between us. We did not annex it [Nagorno-Karabach]. Under Soviet law we are both autonomous entities, one a republic, the other a region.''

Is peace possible? Will he talk with the Azerbaijani leadership?

``If Azerbaijan will respect the self-determination of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, then I am sure our relations with Azerbaijan are going to be normal. Yes, we are ready without any conditions to organize a dialogue,'' the president said.

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