SUMGAIT, U.S.S.R. -- In the shade of the acacia trees, a few dozen men shoot pool on weathered outdoor tables. They play on the very spot where the Soviet Union's most intractable issue of ethnic nationalism flared last year into bloodshed, a daylong pogrom. In February 1988, Sumgait, a dismal industrial city north of Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, became embedded in the collective Soviet consciousness as a symbol of chaos and ethnic hatred. At least 30 people, most of them Armenians, were killed as gangs went door to door looking for their victims. "The pogrom was a nightmare," said one of the pool players, Yashar Mamedov, "and what has come after, the hatred between Azerbaijanis and Armenians, is even worse. We see no way out. We cannot talk to each other." "The way I see what happened in Sumgait, it was all a plot by Armenians to make us look like murderers," said Rafael Absov. "We can tell you what happened." And as the men interrupt one another, each making more fantastic claims than the last, it becomes clear that the level of emotion and resentment here in the Transcaucasus is greater than in any of the Soviet Union's other trouble spots. From the sound of it, the Kremlin has little chance of resolving quickly the differences between Azerbaijanis and Armenians over the control and historical claim over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. People in Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia, offer their version of Sumgait: bands of young Azerbaijanis, crazed with hatred for the Armenians living in their midst, went on a rampage of rape, murder and arson. Many insist that at least 200, not 30, people were killed. The Azerbaijanis at the pool tables in Sumgait tell it another way, and their version also permits no dispute, no variations: In the days preceding the massacre, they say, the local Armenians began taking money out of the local banks and some of them left town. They gave their money to the Krunk Committee, an independent group of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh campaigning to control the region. "Of course, they get a lot of money from the Armenian millionaires in America, too," one of the pool players added. "They send millions in aid, even arms, to their old friends in the Soviet Union." Armenians who spoke flawless Azerbaijani then rounded up a group of Azerbaijani refugees who had just fled from Yerevan, the men said. Fed on morphine and provided guns and clubs, they said, the angry refugees went door to door, looking for Armenians who had not given any money over to the Krunk Committee. "So you see it was a plot to make the people of Sumgait look like crazed killers, and then the powerful Armenians in the West were able to get that message across," another said. The men all said the Sumgait pogrom was "obviously" a premeditated Armenian conspiracy. If they didn't know it was coming, then why were there people on the streets ready to photograph the whole thing and ship them off to the West, one asked. And how come, asked another, the people in Yerevan could build a Sumgait memorial so fast? In Sumgait itself there is no monument to the pogrom. "A memorial for them? What for?" said Abasov. "We have our own losses to mourn." The level of racism and enmity that has developed between the two peoples in the last two years is jarring for any visitor. Many Armenians, a mainly Christian people, consider the Moslem Azerbaijanis lazy, uneducated and crude. Many Azerbaijanis call the Armenians conniving, arrogant, self-pitying. Even among the most educated and worldly Armenians and Azerbaijanis, calm and understanding in recent years are the exceptions, not the rule. At the opening session of the national Congress of People's Deputies in late May, legislators from Azerbaijan and Armenia hurled such heated accusations at each other that Mikhail Gorbachev, who was acting as chairman, had to intervene. The Azerbaijanis and Armenians are so consumed with the Nagorno-Karabakh issue that they seem almost incapable of talking about any other of the country's pressing political and social problems. Traffic of refugees across the borders is still swift. Thousands of Azerbaijanis who left Armenia are now in shoddy dormitories in Baku and elsewhere in the republic. In Armenia, the situation is much the same. The other day in downtown Baku, a huge truck was at the house in which the Nabsibyans, an Armenian family, had lived since 1952. They were packing all their belongings and leaving for Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. Their neighbors, Armenian and Azerbaijani, were there to see them off. "It's an awful thing they have to go now," said one of the Nabsibyans' Azerbaijani friends, Ibragim Ismailov. "But we must leave," Viktoria Nabsibyan said. "The situation here has just gotten too grave. We have no life left here." The Nabsibyans are fleeing to a land of even greater tension and danger. In Nagorno-Karbakh, there are frequent reports of shootings, fights and vandalism. There are troops on the streets of Stepanakert and a strict curfew is in force. Moscow has tried to bring some calm to the region by installing a leadership committee headed by a Kremlin-appointed official, Arkady Volsky. Like the Armenian leadership, neither the independent group, the Azerbaijani Popular Front, nor the Azerbaijani Communist Party is in a mood for conciliation or compromise. Following a rally at which about 100,000 people called for resolution (in Azerbaijan's favor) of the Nagorno-Karabakh question, Popular Front members held a banquet on the edge of Baku to celebrate the quick rise of their group. Over platters of mutton and glasses of cognac, each leader rose to toast "the friendship of all peoples." But there were no conciliatory words for the people of Armenia. At a press conference in Baku, members of the Azerbaijani Central Committee and several economists and historians spent nearly three hours describing to foreign reporters why they felt Nagorno-Karabakh was theirs, why the Armenians had no claim on the land. "The name of the territory means 'Dark Garden' in Azerbaijani, so therefore it is ours," one historian said. "Sure it's 70 percent Armenian now, but that only happened 150 years ago because the Armenians came there from Turkey," said another. In Armenian, an equal and opposite discussion can be heard. At the session's close, a Central Committee member tried to sound conciliatory, opening the subject of "possible negotiations." But another seemed to close it. "Forget it!" he snapped. "Nagorno-Karabakh is ours, and there will be no negotiations about it, never. There is nothing more to say."