It’s unlikely that Nagorno-Karabakh will enter English discourse as prominently as perestroika and glasnost have. But the recent violent demonstrations in two Soviet republics, which have drawn world attention to the demands of Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan for incorporation into the Armenian republic, are testing the durability of the key words in Mikhail Gorbachev’s democratic lexicon.

That the Soviet leader is aware of what’s at stake is clear in his statement, read over Radio Armenia last month, calling for a cooling-off period so that the dispute could be resolved by negotiation rather than by repression. During a meeting with two Armenian writers, another of Gorbachev’s appeals to reform-minded intellectuals, over the heads of party functionaries who resist change, he warned that the demonstrations were “stabbing perestroika in the back.”

Despite the complex and longstanding religious and economic enmity between the two ethnic groups in Azerbaijan, the Armenians’ demonstrations have invoked the spirit of perestroika. On the streets of Yerevan protesters carried placards reading, “Karabakh is a test of perestroika” and “Self-determination is not extremism.” The resolution passed by the Karabakh Soviet on February 20, calling for incorporation into Armenia, was not only an unprecedented expression of nationalism; it was in accord with Gorbachev’s commitment to give such local bodies more independence.

Armenians have been unsuccessfully petitioning the Politburo for the incorporation of Karabakh since 1964. Gorbachev has heard their pleas now, but conservative party leaders, already critical of his economic reforms, may pressure him to wield the Stalinist mailed fist. In that case, perestroika and glasnost could be on their way to becoming [Ob.] or [Archaic].