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The Independent Archive: Hardliners in Kremlin warn of civil war

4 September 1989 While the President is away, Communist hardliners demand action to quell nationalism, reports Helen Womack from Moscow
WITH PRESIDENT Mikhail Gorbachev on holiday by the Black Sea, Kremlin conservatives went on the offensive at the weekend, openly demanding action to quell the nationalist unrest sweeping the fringe republics of the Soviet Union. A string of statements by party hardliners included a warning that the Armenians and Azeris in Nagorny Karabakh were on the brink of civil war and that troops there have lost control.

But, even as they spoke, 100,000 people were demonstrating in the Azeri capital of Baku for more autonomy from Moscow; almost as many people rallied in four Ukrainian cities against a draft election law; Russian workers were striking in Moldavia against the new language law; and Estonian party activities met to discuss how to make the local party more independent of Moscow.

The Soviet Union is more on edge than at any time since Mr Gorbachev came to power in 1985. There is even a stirring of discontent in the vast Ukraine, with a population of 50 million, Mr Gorbachev's ultimate nightmare. It is the centre of Soviet heavy industry and the nation's main grain- growing area. Moscow is looking anxiously to 17 September, the 50th anniversary of the "liberation" of the western Ukraine from Poland.

The hardline attacks were led by the former Politburo ideologue Yegor Ligachev, who was sidelined to take responsibility for agriculture last year. He appeared on national television calling for measures to stop the "erosion of socialism", though he said these should be "political" and not "repressive".

He said the Kremlin had a "constitutional duty" to tighten the reins on nationalist unrest. "Nationalists and separatists of various hues are actively working to disunite and waken the leadership," he said. His prescription was tighter party discipline and better communication between party and public.

To dampen speculation that the conservatives might be acting without Mr Gorbachev's assent, Mr Ligachev stressed that the whole Politburo had agreed the 26 August warning from the Central Committee to the Baltic states that they were heading towards "the abyss".

As if to underline that Mr Gorbachev was still in charge, Tass yesterday carried the full text of a message from him to the Non-Aligned summit in Belgrade. In Mr Gorbachev's absence, however, the party daily Pravda has shifted sharply to the right; for 10 days running, it has campaigned against the growing demands for autonomy - and sometimes outright independence - in several of the non-Russia republics.

The warning over Nagorny Karabakh came from Arkady Volsky, the chairman of a Kremlin committee set up to administer the region, whose Armenian majority want to secede from Azerbaijan. The army daily Red Star yesterday quoted him as saying the region was a "powderkeg" which was ready to blow up and that the two communities were "on the brink of civil war". In the same issue, an army colonel stationed in Nagorby Karabakh said his troops had practically no power to control the huge violent protests which have rent Armenia and Azerbaijan.

At the weekend rally in Baku, there were passionate appeals for a general strike from today to back demands for local autonomy and for firmer Azeri control over Nagorny Karabakh.

Among those who joined Mr Ligachev in condemning such demands was the former KGB chief Viktor Chebrikov. He urged that unspecified measures be taken to "strengthen law enforcement bodies and enhance their prestige". Using rhetoric reminiscent of the Brezhnev era, he said: "Murderers, violators and bandits should not go unpunished, no matter what flags they raise and in what brightly coloured national costumes they are clad."

It is this tone which has so disturbed the three Baltic states, whose popular front movements have appealed to the United Nations for protection. At the weekend, the Communist Party in Estonia reiterated its policy of accelerating perestroika and sacked two party officials regarded as conservatives.

From the front page of `The Independent', Monday 4 September 1989