Beginning on April 29 subdivisions of the Soviet army and the USSR and Azerbaijani interior ministries, supported by heavy artillery, tanks and helicopter gunships, began shelling Armenian villages in Azerbaijan, gradually expanding their operations to villages inside Armenia near the Azerbaijani border.

As a result of these operations - planned by the USSR interior and defense ministries, the KGB and the Azerbaijani government - Armenians of two villages were deported, 50 were killed (including 14 militiamen), hundreds injured and more than 100 taken hostage to Azerbaijan. Many villages have been evacuated.Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev bears direct responsibility for these massive violations of elementary human rights and the Soviet Constitution itself.

In this war by Moscow against Armenia, a constituent republic of the Soviet Union, the central government acted under the cover of a July 1990 presidential order to disarm civilians. Yet the specific operations exceeded, in their brutality, all accepted standards, even those set by the Soviet government itself for a state of emergency. The Soviet government has yet to present a convincing case for the use of such indiscriminate force to achieve its stated purpose - the disarming of guerrilla bands. Last August the newly elected democratic government of Armenia disarmed peacefully (and more effectively) illegally armed elements in Armenia without the help of Moscow.

Soviet authorities cannot claim ignorance since on April 22, noting the pattern of army movements, I personally warned Gorbachev of the impending threat to Armenian villages and civilians. The parliament of Armenia followed suit on April 25, requesting that a special session of the Congress of Peoples' Deputies urgently be called to study the issue and find ways of avoiding the predictable calamity.

Under the USSR Constitution, the Supreme Soviet is obligated to call a special session when asked by the parliament of any republic. The request has been reiterated since. It has been refused.

The Soviet Union has defined the conflict as ethnic antagonism between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, an interpretation that Western governments and media have tended to accept. The two republics have, of course, many obstacles to overcome before relations can be considered normal. Yet the past two weeks make clearer than ever that the problem is political rather than ethnic, religious or national.

Since the victory of popular and democratic forces last August, Armenia's parliament has introduced a multiparty political system; implemented a policy of land distribution to the peasants; initiated privatization of commerce and industry; adopted international conventions on human, political and civil rights - and accepted universal standards of freedom of conscience and religion. Armenia is showing that real reform and progress are possible if Soviet leaders are serious about it.

Moreover, in August 1990, the parliament of Armenia adopted a declaration on independence as the first step toward full sovereignty. For us, independence has become a practical necessity, because the establishment of democratic institutions remains incompatible with imperial interests. Unless we are free to pursue our own relations with others, Moscow will use the excuse of hatred between neighbors to perpetuate our colonial status.

Armenia is rethinking its relations with all its neighbors, including Turkey, with whom Armenians have had a tortuous history, and Azerbaijan, with whom we had been continuing discussions in good faith since my government came to power last August.

We believe Armenian-Azerbaijani discussions could have led to some understanding between the two republics had imperial concerns not forced a postponement of what is inevitably the only road to peace and security: independence. Independence will also allow us to develop normal relations with neighbors and the rest of the world community on the basis of mutual benefits and needs.

Armenia is following the requirements of the law on the secession of republics set by the USSR's constitution. The text of the republic's referendum, to be held on Sept. 21, 1991, reflects that strategy.

Yet the Soviet leadership seems more committed to the preservation of the empire than to the respect of its own laws. The entente between imperial Moscow and authoritarian Azerbaijan must be seen in this context. Their joint strategy serves to penalize Armenia for having adopted independence and democracy; it rewards Azerbaijan and its politically weak president for their support of Moscow.

The survival of the Communist Party and President Ayaz Mutalibov of Azerbaijan remains the main lever Moscow has for saving its empire in the Caucasus.

In my view, the recent terror against Armenians was intended to draw Armenians into a war against the Soviet army, to associate national and democratic aspirations with destruction, and sovereignty with insecurity and impotence.

But we Armenians remain committed to instituting the rule of law and justice, to give our nation a sense of normalcy. Despite Moscow's provocations, my government insists on pursuing a course of moderation and negotiations to achieve real peace.

My government has not ruled out one or more agreements with a union of Soviet republics or individual republics, as long as Armenia, with a democratically elected government, participates in negotiations as a sovereign state - and does not have imposed upon it conditions that hinder democratization, economic reform and the attainment of national sovereignty.

Armenia is more than ever aware of its strengths and especially its vulnerabilities. But we cannot accept that our vulnerabilities be turned into a rationale to keep Armenia in a perpetual colonial status.

1991 New Perspectives Quarterly

Distributed by L.A. Times Syndicate