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Strikes, Demonstrations Mark Continuing Struggle in Armenia

June 19, 1988

LENINAKAN, U.S.S.R. (AP) _ A storm blew through Leninakan in Soviet Armenia on a Monday evening, briefly dispersing the throngs of people who had gathered in Theater Square in the city center.

Local estimates put the crowd, which easily filled the tree-lined square, at 50,000. Certainly there were many thousands.

On an ordinary night, a few old men would have collected at the heart of the 2,400-year-old city to play checkers and drink the famed local cognac. But this night was different.

It was June 13, the first day of a general strike to press demands for resolution of a territorial dispute. Groups of Armenians wandered up and down Kalinin Street, dropped by Theater Square to hear speeches and mingled with friends.

The city’s center was closed to traffic. Several hundred policemen were on hand to maintain order. They listened to the proceedings and politely directed motorists to side streets.

Since late May, crowds had gathered nightly on Theater Square and in many Armenian cities to protest the 15-year prison term given an Azerbaijani convicted of killing Armenians in ethnic riots. Armenians didn’t think the sentence was harsh enough.

At least 32 people, most of them Armenians, died in three days of rioting in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait.

The strike was called by the Karabakh Committee, a group that coordinates Armenia’s popular protests. Protesters seek annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-dominated region that has been attached to the republic of Azerbaijan since 1923.

The stoppage was nearly total in Leninakan, a city of more than 170,000. A torrential downpour interrupted the flow of speeches in Theater Square, but only briefly. Within 15 minutes, speakers resumed calls for aid to the victims of the Sumgait riots and urged unification of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.

Placards included official portraits of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

″Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are one 3/8″ proclaimed one red banner in Armenian script.

″We’re very angry that people in Moscow are saying we’re hooligans,″ said Tigran, a social worker, who had not been to work that day. He and others interviewed requested only their first names be used.

″Why don’t they show this on television?″ he asked. ″We’re very peaceful people ... If they’d just give us Nagorno-Karabach, they wouldn’t hear another word from us.″

Workers, factory managers, athletes, Sumgait refugees and others addressed the crowd.

″It is important that we stay organized,″ a man named Gevork, who identified himself as a manager of a local factory, told the crowd.

″We must do everything we can to help the victims of the massacre at Sumgait 3/8″ he said. The audience applauded, but a heckler shouted ″Why don’t you make one of your dachas available to them?″

Those close enough to hear laughed. A dacha is a summer home.

Official figures published Wednesday in the Armenian newspaper Kommunist say 2,527 Armenians have been resettled after leaving Sumgait. The Communist Party first secretary in Armenia, S.G. Arutunyan, told the republic’s Supreme Soviet that 86 families are still homeless.

The general strike nearly shut down Leninakan for three days, despite official appeals for people to return to work.

But authorities acted to protect the demonstrators.

When a few dozen protesters set out on foot for Yerevan, the Armenian capital 40 miles away, police provided an official escort.

Elsewhere, some office workers took advantage of the general strike to go into the mountains for a picnic.

″In Armenia, the cognac flows in rivers,″ explained Viken, a fireman who was roasting a slaughtered lamb over an open fire with friends. ″You dip your bottle in, and fill it up.″

But when talk turned to Nagorno-Karabakh, the picnickers grew serious. ″Azerbaijanis are Turks 3/8″ said Levon, a local party official. ″They’re Muslims, and we’re Christians. We’ve been fighting each other for centuries. Stalin was wrong to put Nagorno-Karabach under their control.″

Josef Stalin was in charge of the nationalities policy when the republics’ boundaries were drawn.

On Wednesday, news spread swiftly of the Armenian Supreme Soviet’s decision to petition Moscow to put Nagorno-Karabach under Armenian control.

″This is very good news,″ said Agonye, a local bureaucrat. ″They wouldn’t have taken a decision like that without Moscow’s approval.″

Wednesday night, after the Armenian government announcement, Theater Square was quiet. Hundreds of cigarette butts strewn across the square were the only reminder of the recent days’ events.

But Friday, the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet announced it would oppose any move to take away Nagorno-Karabakh. The dispute is not over yet.

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