THE ASSASSINATION Wednesday of Armenia's prime minister and other leading politicians could hardly have come at a worse time. Armenia and neighboring Azerbaijan in the Caucasus region of what used to be the Soviet Union had apparently been making progress in peace talks. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, trying to push those negotiations forward, had left the Armenian capital of Yerevan just hours before a handful of gunmen entered the parliament building and began shooting. Now Armenia's fragile and highly imperfect democracy will, at best, be preoccupied with matters other than peace.

Little is known yet of the assassins. The criminals declared themselves the vanguard of a coup d'etat and claimed patriotic motives, but their ringleader seems to have been the kind of unstable character who can surface in any society. Armenia's elected president, Robert Kocharian, remains in charge; the assailants are in custody; and their call for a coup seems to have had no effect.

Still, this is another setback for a nation that has seen many disappointments since it regained independence in 1991. The first democratically elected president turned ominously autocratic; he in turn was forced to resign when he showed signs of reasonableness toward Azerbaijan. Much of the country's internal security apparatus has been politicized, and politics have been disturbingly militarized. But Armenia is far from lost when it comes to democratization. The United States and Armenia's other allies should render whatever support is possible now to make sure this latest tragedy does not block further progress.

The stalemate with Azerbaijan is at the root of the region's instability. Both countries claim a territory that is populated mostly by Armenians but lies within the boundaries of Azerbaijan as it emerged from the Soviet Union in 1991. Nationalist sentiment in both countries runs high, but neither will get far economically or politically until the current cold peace thaws into better cooperation. President Kocharian, too, deserves support to help him get through this crisis and return in a serious way to the peace process.