"We should busy ourselves most thoroughly with the nationalities policy at the present stage. This is a most fundamental, vital question of our society."

-- Mikhail Gorbachev, Feb. 18, 1988

GENERAL Secretary Gorbachev's policies of openness and restructuring have raised expectations in the Soviet Union, especially among those nationalities with historic grievances stemming from decisions made during the Stalin era. As Soviet society attempts to face the Stalinist legacy, fundamental injustices are being revealed. The Armenian nationality question -- which prompted the vast protest demonstrations earlier this month -- is one such case.

Against a backdrop of increasing ethnic tensions, Gorbachev's recent declaration about the need to reassess policies regarding the multinational and multireligious society is an acknowledgement that the longstanding assertion that the Soviet peoples live in brotherhood and harmony has often struck a hollow chord.

More than 100 ethnic groups, including 15 republics of which Armenia is one, constitute the Soviet state. In dealing with the nationalities question, the Soviets have alternated betweeen firmness and reform in response to appeals from its ethnic miniorities. Those appeals have ranged from requests for greater cultural autonomy to objections to Russification programs to outright demands for independence. The general intent of the Soviet Union has been to allow as much cultural autonomy as possible without having that autonomy lead to nationalist expression. The minimal objective of each nationality has been to maintain its ethnic identity and historical integrity. The tone and content of each appeal was based upon each group's perception of a particular Soviet administration's nationalities policy. When those objectives are in conflict, headlines are made in the West.

Hence the latest outbreak of protests in Soviet Armenia, the most southern of the 15 Soviet republics, which borders Turkey. The demonstrations began two weeks ago in Nagorno-Karabakh, a 1,700-square-mile district in Soviet Azerbaijan, and spread to Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia. With protestors reportedly numbering in the hundreds of thousands, they are considered to be among the largest unauthorized mass meetings ever held in Soviet history.

In general, the complaints registered by ethnic minorities of the Soviet Union have been directed against the policies of the central government. But the Armenian demonstrations are motivated by an historical grievance of a different nature -- a question of land and boundaries. Armenians are asking Moscow to unite the Nagorno (mountainous) Karabakh district in Azerbaijan with the Soviet Republic of Armenia.

The district of Nagorno-Karabakh has a population of about 200,000, of whom some 80 percent are Armenian and the rest Azerbaijani. Armenians in Karabakh complain that discrimination by the Soviet leadership in Azerbaijan against the Armenian population has hindered development of the area and is intended to encourage Amenian emigration.

A historic center of Armenian life and culture, Karabakh through the centuries remained semi-autonomous under the rule of Armenian princes even when the rest of Armenia had been conquered by the Persian and Turkish empires. Thus Armenians have always regarded the area to be of prime historical, cultural and strategic significance.

After Karabakh's annexation to Russia at the beginning of the 19th century, the Armenians lived in relative peace until the Russian Revolution of 1917 led to a period of chaos in the Caucasus region. When the Armenian and Azerbaijani peoples declared their independence in the wake of the temporary Russian retreat from the area, Karabakh became a bone of contention. Azerbaijan, with a Shiite Muslim population speaking the Turkish language, claimed and occupied Karabakh, despite the intense resistance of the Armenian population which demanded unification with the Armenian state.

The entry of the Red Army into the Caucausus in 1920 brought the fighting to an end; and when Armenia was Sovietized, Azerbaijan renounced its claims to Karabakh and agreed to its unification with Armenia. Nationalist Turkey, then under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, was opposed to seeing a large Armenian state on its borders. An accommodation was reached by the terms of the Treaty of Moscow, signed in March 1921 -- the first official treaty between the Soviet Union and Nationalist Turkey -- which sanctioned the diminution of Armenia and awarded the disputed territories to Soviet Azerbaijan. These violations of territorial integrity were agreed to by Joseph Stalin. In 1923, parts of mountainous Karabakh were given the status of an autonomous district within the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.

The Karabakh question poses a challenge to the Soviet system. Sensing a regime of genuine reform under Gorbachev, the Armenians of Karabakh are demanding neither greater autonomy nor separation from the Soviet Union. Their sole aim is to be reunified with their kinsmen not 10 miles distant.

If this comparatively straightforward question cannot be resolved to the satisfaction of hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens now in the streets of Stepanakert and Yerevan, Gorbachev's new nationalities policy may end before it begins. Richard Hovannisian is professor of Armenian and Near Eastern history and associate director of the Near Eastern Center at UCLA.