MOSCOW — The republic of Armenia passed a declaration of independence today and Estonia began formal negotiations with Kremlin officials on separation, bringing the Soviet Union closer to fragmentation.
Armenia, a republic of 3.3 million people on the border with Turkey and Iran, is the fifth of the 15 Soviet republics to move toward complete independence from Moscow.
However, its path may be complicated by the bloody two-year conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The declaration calls for creation of Armenia's own armed forces to safeguard the border, which this week was again the scene of violent conflict with Azerbaijanis. The declaration also calls for Nagorno-Karabakh, a largely Armenian area of Azerbaijan, to become part of Armenia.
The Armenian resolution "declares the beginning of the process of establishing independent statehood," according to an English translation sent to the Associated Press.
Armenian legislator Samvel Shakhmuradyan said he expects the republic to remain part of the Soviet Union only during an undefined transitional period to complete separation.
Armenia's decision increases pressure on President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who is struggling to develop a new union treaty attractive enough to keep his nation whole. However, Gorbachev seems to be bowing to Baltic demands for complete independence.
Kremlin officials began formal negotiations with the Baltic republic of Estonia today, the 51st anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet pact that led to Soviet annexation of the Baltic states. The two other Baltics, Latvia and Lithuania, are expected to begin independence negotiations with Soviet representatives soon.
In addition to the Baltics and Armenia, Georgia has also declared independence and wants to hold independence negotiations with the Kremlin.
Armenia's Parliament rejected a radical proposal to declare independence effective immediately, as well as a Communist Party proposal to be "independent but remain in the Soviet Union," said Raffi Hovannisian, an Armenian-American who watched the debate.
The resolution was approved by a vote of 183 to 2, Shakhmuradyan said in a telephone interview from Yerevan, the capital of the small republic. The resolution invalidates the Soviet Constitution on Armenian territory and says that only the Armenian Constitution is in effect, Shakhmuradyan said.
It demands a share of the Soviet national wealth including gold, diamonds and foreign currency reserves. It calls for the creation of Armenia's own currency, banking system and customs duties.