MOSCOW -- The local Communist Party leaders in Armenia and Azerbaijan were fired Saturday in the aftermath of the bloody nationalist demonstrations over the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh.
The Tass news agency announcement, which followed reports of new unrest in the volatile southern republics, made clear that the Kremlin was orchestrating the removals.
Karen Demirchyan was replaced as Communist Party first secretary in Armenia by Suren Arutyunyan, and Kyamran Bagirov was replaced in Azerbaijan by Abdul Rakhman Vezirov.
The evening television news reported the men were retired on pension 'on account of the state of their health.' Both men were 55 years old.
Biographies carried by Tass indicated both new first secretaries had stronger connections to Moscow than their home regions, reinforcing the view that the Kremlin is trying to tighten its control.
Officially the firings were carried out by the Central Committees of each republic's Communist Party, but Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had dispatched senior representatives of his ruling Politburo to each meeting.
Tass noted that Alexander Yakovlev and Viktor Dolgikh were at the meeting in the Azerbaijan capital of Baku while Georgi Razumovsky and Yegor Ligachev attended the session in the Armenian capital of Yerevan.
The dispute over Nagorno Karabakh, located in Azerbaijan, had simmered since it was placed under Armenian control in 1923. Last October about 1,000 people demonstrated in the Armenian city of Yerevan for the region's transfer to Armenia. Armenians are Christians, while Azeris have Moslem traditions.
In February, demonstrations by Armenians began in the enclave's main city, Stepanakert. They soon overflowed into Yerevan, peaking with demonstrations that pulled hundreds of thousands of Armenians into the streets.
In response, Azeri residents in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait went on a three-day ramage at the end of the month. By the time troops restored order, 26 Armenians and six other people were dead. Other Armenian residents fled, with many still afraid to return.
The first of more than 80 people facing trial over that pogrom was sentenced last week to 15 years in prison for the murder of an Armenian.
Gorbachev has promised to examine the policy on Soviet nationalities, but on Nagorno Karabakh he has sought a compromise. Armenians likely would be better served in their own language but the area remains part of Azerbaijan.
It may not have quelled the unrest. On May 12 up to 50,000 Armenians reportedly marched through the streets of Yerevan to protest the appointment of an Azeri as deputy procurator in Nagorno Karabakh.
That was followed this week by reports of a mass demonstration in Baku directed against Armenian claims to the disputed region, which once was predominatly Azeri but is now about 80 percent Armenian.
A Soviet television program earlier this month condemned the lack of information during the unrest. But, underlining the continuing tension, Western reporters are still blocked from traveling into Nagorno Karabakh.
Vezirov, the new Azerbaijan leader, had been in the diplomatic service since 1976, serving last as ambassador in Pakistan, Tass said.
Arutyunyan, 49, the new Armenian leader, had worked from 1978 to 1984 in the Communist Party Central Committee in Moscow and was listed as a member of the Armenian politburo only since 1986.
Although the nationalist demonstrations were the reason for the simultaneous firings, Demirchyan's fate had probably been sealed last June when Gorbachev publicly attacked his lack of enthusiasm for reform.
That was followed by condemnations in the Moscow-controlled press. But, prior to the nationalist disturbances, the Armenian party had rallied round the local leader and firmly rejected Gorbachev's attempts to remove Demirchyan.