MOSCOW, AUG. 23 -- The legislature of Armenia declared the Soviet republic independent of Moscow today, claiming for itself the right to control its own army, natural resources, banks, economic system and foreign policy.
The declaration, which was approved by a vote of 183 to 2, is intended to be the basis for a new constitution of a "democratic, legal society." It claims control over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave that has been under the administration of the neighboring Soviet republic of Azerbaijan since the 1920s.
The declaration's claim of control over its own army makes it a more radical document than the independence measures passed early this year in the three Soviet Baltic republics, but the Armenians left vague what the future relationship with Moscow would be. Armenia's violent clashes with Azerbaijan in the past 2 1/2 years also make the Soviet Transcaucasus region potentially more troublesome for the Kremlin than the Baltics.
Of the 15 Soviet republics, Georgia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Armenia have declared independence, while Russia, the Ukraine, Moldavia, Azerbaijan, Byelorussia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have passed resolutions of sovereignty within a reformed union. The Armenian document "declares the beginning of a process establishing independent statehood," indicating that the Armenians expect an extended period of negotiations with Moscow.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has reacted to the declarations of independence and sovereignty throughout the country by calling for a new treaty among all the republics that would make the Soviet Uniont a voluntary confederation of sovereign states. But there are still sharp disagreements over how much power Moscow -- or "the center," as it is called here -- would retain in the future.
The Estonian government began negotiations with the Soviet leadership on independence today. The Soviet news agency Tass said the two sides would begin to meet weekly and then submit proposals to Gorbachev's presidential advisory council in October. Lithuania and Latvia are also expected to begin independence negotiations with Kremlin representatives here this week.
"Russia is of the belief that what is needed most from the center is a basic system of defense, foreign policy, perhaps transport and communications, but all this remains to be worked out," said Russian Premier Ivan Silayev in an interview. "No one can predict what the union will look like in a few years or who will even be a member."
An example of the struggle between the central government and the republics came today as Gorbachev declared illegal a Russian legislative decision this month intended to give the republic control over its own resources, including gold reserves. Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin have formed an informal partnership aimed at creating a national program of economic reform, but they continue to struggle over specific issues, including the administration of foreign business on Russian territory.
Armenian nationalism has a long history, and in modern times the movement has been influenced profoundly by what Armenians call the genocide of 1.5 million of their countrymen in Turkey during World War I and immediately afterward. The Turkish government disputes the history of that period, and today's independence declaration includes an article calling for international recognition of the deaths.
Under the leadership of the new Armenian president, former political prisoner Levon Ter-Petrossian, the legislature changed the name of the republic from the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia to the Republic of Armenia and declared that all Armenians living abroad have the right of citizenship. Ter-Petrossian said the declaration allows Armenia to create its own "relations with the world," according to Moscow Radio.
The Armenian document is intended to supplant the Soviet Constitution in the republic and serve as the foundation for a new Armenian constitution. "The Republic of Armenia," the declaration reads in part, "guarantees on its territory freedom of speech, press, conscience; separation of the functions of legislative, executive and judicial bodies; a multi-party system, legal equality of political parties, depoliticization of law-enforcement bodies and armed forces." The legislature also claimed "its share of Soviet national wealth," including hard currency, gold and diamonds.
In previous decades, many Armenians felt that independence, despite the repressiveness of Soviet regimes, was impossible because of the potential of renewed hostility with Turkey. But Armenian sources have said more recently that with Turkey trying to become a member of the European Community, the Turks appear far less threatening than during the early years of the century.
The Armenian decision on military affairs will undoubtedly trouble Gorbachev, who has ordered independent militia groups in the republic to hand over weapons stolen from Soviet army caches.
After today's vote on the declaration, Ter-Petrossian went to the Armenian city of Idzhevan to meet with Soviet military officials about recent clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. In the past three days, Soviet troops have killed an unknown number of paramilitary Armenian nationalists while driving them away from the border with Azerbaijan. Soviet military authorities said the Armenians had modern grenade launchers and battlefield missiles.