Armenian Hopes, Georgian Fears

September 27, 1991

The post-communist Soviet Union -- or the Union of Sovereign States, as it is likely to be called in the future -- is riding on a dizzying roller coaster of news developments. Every climb seems to be matched by a precipitous fall.

Georgia, on the coast of the Black Sea, is edging toward fratricide under its unpredictable president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. In far-away Tadzhikistan, tucked between China and Afghanistan, old-guard communists have retaken power, ousting the republic's president. Amid these storm signs, a sudden ray of hope has emerged from Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have declared a truce in their bitter fight over the Nagorno-Karabagh territory.

Further negotiations are required to end the dispute over that mountainous enclave inside Azerbaijan which has an Armenian majority population. But the promise of territorial self-rule in exchange for Armenia's renunciation of claims to Nagorno-Karabagh is a good starting point in efforts to defuse this explosive issue.

Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev played a crucial role in personally negotiating the truce. Their republics are to be actively involved in further talks as well as guarantors of a peaceful transition in the contested area. This is highly significant because it underscores the respect Messrs. Yeltsin and Nazarbayev have won among former Soviet republics. It contrasts with the deep mistrust that both sides in the Nagorno-Karabagh controversy had developed toward Mikhail S. Gorbachev's Kremlin.

In this context it is important to note that both Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Nazarbayev were prime movers in attempts to fashion a new federation out of Soviet republics before the August coup. Feats like the Nagorno-Karabagh truce should add to their credibility as possible godfathers of a post-communist commonwealth of sovereign states.

Such a loose union is necessary in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet central government. Many of the former Soviet republics simply cannot survive on their own but need to continue some of their historic economic and political ties. If landlocked Armenia, on the border of historically hostile Turkey, can mend fences with another historic enemy, Azerbaijan, such a change of attitude should serve as a potent argument for arbitration and cooperation among former Soviet republics.

The next months will test leaders of emerging sovereign republics. They should recognize that the post-communist Soviet Union is a place where some republics, particularly Russia, are more equal than others because of their size and economic import. In sorting out problems, they will need the sensible approach shown on Nagorno-Karabagh.

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