YEREVAN, U.S.S.R. -- Armenia has agreed to renounce any claim to a territory at the heart of its dispute with neighboring Azerbaijan and to enter formal negotiations on the issue today in an attempt to end the Soviet Union's bloodiest and longest-running civil conflict, officials said here yesterday.
The apparent breakthrough came as Armenia prepared to declare its independence formally from the Soviet Union. Officials announced last night that more than 94 percent of the voters supported independence in a referendum Saturday, which was certain to be ratified by the Parliament today.
Meanwhile, President Boris N. Yeltsin of the Russian republic announced the plan for a peace conference over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh on a stop in the Armenian capital yesterday after a remarkable weekend of shuttle diplomacy that included a helicopter visit to the hazardous region.
With the central Soviet government in virtual collapse, the Russian republic and the republic of Kazakhstan are to mediate the opening of negotiations today in the neutral Russian spa town of Zheleznogorsk and to monitor compliance with any agreement.
Armenia would be the 12th of the 15 former Soviet republics to proclaim itself independent, all but two of them after the failed coup last month left the Communist central government in shambles.
The mood of celebration after the independence vote has buoyed the stock of Armenia's president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, a former dissident, and may have given him greater license to compromise on the territorial conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous wedge of Azerbaijan where the majority of residents are Armenian, has been demanding greater self-rule for more than three years. The Christian Armenians say their language, religious freedom and economic liberty were sharply curtailed under the rule of Azerbaijan, which is Turkic-speaking and Muslim.
Azerbaijan recently ordered the local government disbanded after its Armenian majority voted to secede.
There is strong support here in Yerevan for the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, but there is also a growing weariness with the intractable conflict, which has killed hundreds on both sides and created half a million refugees.
A convoy of army helicopters ferried Mr. Yeltsin and Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, the president of Kazkhstan, to a military base in Nagorno-Karabakh yesterday morning, and they traveled in a motorcade under heavy security to the regional capital for what Mr. Yeltsin described as "stormy" meetings with prominent Armenians there.
Artillery attacks and hostage taking are so common in the region that there was speculation that Mr. Yeltsin might not risk a visit.
Although all participants in the coming negotiations stressed that the dispute was far from being resolved, the fact that the
rival republics were meeting and had agreed on
opening terms for negotiations was a significant breakthrough that enhanced Mr. Yeltsin's stature as a power broker in the disintegrated Soviet Union.
Yesterday in Nagorno-Karabakh, he told a cheering crowd that long ago he had invited the Soviet president, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, to join him in a peace mission but that the suggestion was brushed aside.
"This is the fourth year of this conflict, and we see the center, including Gorbachev, has accomplished nothing," Mr. Yeltsin said. "None of their heavy-handed methods has succeeded in making peace." Mr. Yeltsin said the two republics and representatives of the Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh would gather this morning to sign a communique outlining several areas of agreement.
He gave no details, but officials involved in the weekend discussions said Armenia had agreed to start from the "status quo" of 1988, before Nagorno-Karabakh declared its intention to secede from Azerbaijan.
By accepting the 1988 status quo, Armenia has effectively conceded
that Nagorno-Karabakh is legally part of Azerbaijan. In exchange, the Armenians apparently hope that with the guarantee of Mr. Yeltsin, a trusted mediator, the region can win genuine self-rule short of formal secession.
Asked yesterday whether Armenia had any claims to the territory, Mr. Ter-Petrosyan said: "There was never any such claim."
Interviewed yesterday in Nagorno-Karabakh, Genrikh Pogosyan, a representative of the Armenians there, said the main question was not the status of the region's government but the freedom of Armenian residents to practice their culture, language and religion.
Mr. Yeltsin's arrival in Nagorno-Karabakh was triumphal, with a roaring crowd of thousands turning out in the city's square to welcome him. But many in the crowd were skeptical that the coming negotiations would bear fruit.
"He wants to stop the bloodletting, but it is not in his power," said an Armenian man in the crowd, which had waited five hours for a glimpse of the Russian president.