Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said ethnic strife is threatening his program of economic and social reforms, and he said restructuring is the cure for the violence, not the cause.
Gorbachev was reacting to a wave of nationalist unrest that has swept across the country from the Baltic republics in the northwest to the Caucasus in the southwest.In a related development, the policymaking body of the ruling Communist Party, the Central Committee, met Monday to review proposals for revamping the central government's relationship to the 15 Soviet republics.
Official media said Gorbachev was delivering a report to the 300-member body, but no further details were available.
Among the draft proposals before the Central Committee are constitutional amendments that critics say would concentrate too much power in the Kremlin and eliminate the legal possibility for republics to secede from the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev said in a speech broadcast on state television Sunday that "attempts are being made to kindle dislike in the interethnic sphere."
"This would be disastrous, it would put perestroika in jeopardy," he said, referring to his reform campaign. "It would even make some people think that it is, perhaps, perestroika that is to blame for all that."
He said his policy of opening up information and opinion is the solution to ethnic tension, which exists in many of the 15 Soviet republics.
Gorbachev's remarks come during violent tensions between the neighboring southern republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan and during demands for increased autonomy in the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
He made his speech Saturday before the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, the nation's top executive body.
Saturday's session of the Presidum struck down an Estonian declaration of limited sovereignty made earlier this month, official media reported. Estonia declared then that it had the right to veto Soviet laws.
Official media said Gorbachev acknowledged before the Presidium that national constitutional amendments he has proposed may have angered Estonians and others by curtailing local rule.
But his remarks Saturday also carried a veiled warning. "I must say we receive a great number of letters from working people in every republic with remarks that we are at times too tolerant with regard to extremists," Gorbachev said.
In Azerbaijan on Sunday, two Communist Party officials were reported fired.
Soviet newspapers charged that local authorities were not helping soldiers halt the ethnic violence in the republic. Rallies of up to 500,000 people were reported Sunday in Baku, the republic's capital.
The military newspaper Red Star said local officials are not helping troops trying to keep the clashing Azer-baijanis and Armenians apart in the Azerbaijani city of Kirovabad.
At least seven people were killed and 160 injured in Kirovabad in last week's violence between the mainly Christian Armenians and Moslem Azerbaijanis, reports have said.
A duty officer at the Azerbaijani Communist Party headquarters in the city of Baku denied charges that local authorities were not helping the military quell the violence, saying "The party is in control." He refused to give his name.
Ethnic fighting between Azerbaijanis and Armenians first began in February and culminated in last week's massive demonstrations.
The Armenians, who dominate the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, are demanding that it be annexed to neighboring Armenia.
Tass reported Sunday that building materials were being removed from a construction site for an Armenian workshop and recreation center in Azerbaijan's Topkhan Natural Preserve. The official news agency said the construction of the center at an Armenian-controlled aluminum factory contributed to last week's unrest.