War victory parade fails to mask Armenians' disdain Military's new role is against civilians

May 10, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Strains of martial music from the Victory Day parade drifted up to the 10th floor of the Moskva Hotel beside Red Square, and Zori Balayan grew angry.

"The Armenian people paid for victory in World War II with 384,000 lives. There were 106 Armenian Heroes of the Soviet Union, four Marshals of the Soviet Union," said the 56-year-old poet, journalist and member of the Soviet parliament.

"And now the army is waging war against the Armenian people."

The 46th anniversary of Nazi Germany's surrender was celebrated yesterday with even more than the usual hoopla of parades and concerts. Soviet television dug out the old war movies and tried to salve the resentment of veterans who think German reunification and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact have undone their hard-won victory.

Bemedaled old-timers gathered with their surviving comrades in front of the Bolshoi Theater and in Gorky Park, remembering the glory and the incredible cost: Historians have upped the estimate of Soviet lives lost in World War II from 20 million to 27 million.

The veterans remembered the colossal battles of Kursk and Stalingrad, the defense of Moscow, the horrific toll of the 900-day siege of Leningrad. They recalled a war with a clear goal and an unambiguously evil, external enemy. Once again they accepted congratulations for "saving the world from fascism."

But the most recent battles of the Soviet army have an altogether different resonance: Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1989; Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1990; Vilnius, Lithuania, in January, 1991. This domestic war is morally murky, and the enemy seems to be the soldiers' fellow citizens.

In Russia, the liveliest talk about the army in recent months has focused on whether it might attempt a coup. President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's top military adviser, Marshal Sergei F. Akhromeyev, wrote an article in February implicitly comparing Russian democrats to the German Nazis for allegedly attempting to break up the Soviet Union.

And now, ostensibly in a hunt for Armenian militants, Armenian villages in the neighboring republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan have been surrounded, shelled, looted and burned in operations that the Armenians say have cost at least 50 lives.

It is the latest escalation of violence stemming from a long feud over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mainly Armenian-populated enclave inside Azerbaijan that is claimed by both southern republics.

A few days earlier, Mr. Balayan had flown with a helicopter full of physicians into ruined Armenian villages inside Azerbaijan. Military officials refused to let the doctors get off to treat the wounded, he said. "There's an element of mockery in their behavior, an attempt to make things even more painful," he said.

On Wednesday, Mr. Balayan flew to Moscow and began telephoning his protests to President Gorbachev, KGB chief Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, Minister of Internal Affairs Boris K. Pugo and Minister of Defense Dmitry T. Yazov.

"I told Yazov, 'Your army today is destroying the very houses it helped build after the earthquake in 1988,' " he said, referring to ,, the quake that devastated part of Armenia and left 25,000 people dead. "He said, 'Don't you see, these problems have to be solved at a higher level,' " Mr. Balayan said. "He was obviously talking about Gorbachev."

The role of the Soviet army and of Ministry of Internal Affairs troops in the violence in Transcaucasia is ambiguous. The official version is that they are enforcing Mr. Gorbachev's decree of last summer on disarming unofficial paramilitary groups by going house-to-house in villages known to harbor Armenian fighters.

But by siding with Azerbaijan in the two republics' feud, the army is associating itself with atrocities committed by the Azerbaijani troops who have been following them into the Armenian villages. They are lending their strength to what the Armenians say is a planned deportation campaign, aimed at driving Armenians out of Azerbaijan.

Mr. Balayan showed The Sun three handwritten eyewitness accounts of the events around the Armenian village of Getashen in Azerbaijan in the first days of May. The accounts were written by non-Armenian Soviet army officers involved in evacuating the wounded and have a puzzled, worried tone.

The officers describe a confused atmosphere, in which regular army and Internal Affairs troops come across Azerbaijani police and riot troops, some of them with heavy weaponry or army uniforms. They seem not entirely to know who is friend and who is foe.

The army officers confirm Armenian claims that many of the dead and wounded are not young nationalist fighters but old men and women. Maj. N. Y. Kurbalenko describes corpses with the ears cut off and one man who was scalped but survived. Another woman said she had been shot in the hand when she took too long taking off a ring demanded by an Azerbaijani soldier, Major Kurbalenko writes.

General Yazov, in a Victory Day message in Pravda, implicitly justified the drive against Armenian partisans. "The creation of republican armed formations could assist the transformation of interethnic conflicts into fratricidal war," he wrote.

Armenian leaders say the fratricidal war has been waged for some time. What is new, they say, is that Soviet troops are joining in on the Azerbaijani side.

Among those at the Bolshoi Theater were younger-generation veterans of the Afghan war and the ethnic battles, including blond, tipsy Oleg, 22. He had fought 14 months in Afghanistan, where, he said, "we didn't know why we were there."

Then he returned home -- and was sent swiftly into domestic ethnic disturbances, in 1989 in Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley and early last year in Dushanbe, Tadzhikistan, where he was wounded.

"It has all left me angry," Oleg said. Sweeping his hand around to show the World War II veterans, he declared, "For me, the army wasn't anything like what it was for them."

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