YEREVAN, U.S.S.R.— When the Soviet authorities jailed the leaders of the most prominent Armenian nationalist group last winter, they hoped to quell and discredit the growing movement that these men were directing.
The arrest of members of the Karabakh Committee, who had coordinated the campaign to transfer the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region from Azerbaijani to Armenian rule, was followed by harsh condemnations of them in the Soviet press. The arrested men were accused of fomenting ethnic unrest and of heartlessly pursuing political goals in the aftermath of Armenia's devastating earthquake.
But when they returned from prison recently after being held for six months without trial, members of the committee said they discovered that their popularity and public support for their goals had actually grown in their absence.
What's more, they said in interviews here, officials who had condemned them are now seeking their support and endorsing their demands. 'Like Saints to the People'
''Our arrest gave us a kind of halo among people here,'' said Vazgen Manukyan, one of the 11 members of the Karabakh Committee, who was arrested in December and imprisoned until May 31 at the Matrosskaya Tishina prison in Moscow. ''We became like saints to the people, who regarded us with greater respect because of our suffering. And the leaders here in Armenia understood that they could not ignore such a popular force. In a way, they helped create this popularity, and now they have to deal with us.''
President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has been enormously frustrated by the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, which has come to be a symbol of the country's ethnic problems and Moscow's inability to cope with them. During his visit to the Armenian earthquake site in December, he lashed out at people who questioned him about the dispute. Many people in Armenia say they believe that Mr. Gorbachev himself ordered or sanctioned the arrests of the Karabakh Committee members, which were made just after he left Armenia.
The men have never been charged or tried, and they were released at the beginning of the opening session of the new Soviet Congress of People's Deputies, as several groups of legislators began demanding information about their cases.
The night they were freed from a prison here in the republic's capital, where they spent a day after being flown back from Moscow, scores of thousands of people - including Armenian officials - lined the city streets and gathered in Matenadaran Square to greet them. Greeted by Weeping and Cheers
For about an hour and a half, people wept and cheered as the men told of their months in prison, thanked those who had demonstrated for their release and promised to carry on the fight for Nagorno-Karabakh.
Changes had already begun in the time they were gone, they noted, including the fact that Yerevan is almost completely cleared of the soldiers and tanks that had patrolled it off and on for more than a year.
But the most important sign of official acceptance came about three weeks later, when the legislature here officially registered the Armenian All-National Movement and listed the Karabakh Committee as its founder.
''That was like rehabilitation for us,'' said Babken Ararktsyan, a committee member who had been jailed.
Communist Party leaders in the Baltic republics have lent their support to grass-roots nationalist movements on their territory, either out of genuine sympathy, or because they understood that they would lose their influence if they opposed such popular groups. 'To Keep the Dialogue Open'
But here the Nagorno-Karabakh issue has been an emotional and bloody one that has alienated the Kremlin from the people. The new-found eagerness of the authorities to cooperate with members of the Karabakh Committee, people here said, is an indication of their desperate search for a way to end the unrest and their realization of the group's importance.
While the Armenian leadership had earlier supported the call for joining Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, it had never before acknowledged the Karabakh Committee itself as legitimate.
The newly registered organization will have a program including positions on ecology, culture and human rights, the leaders said, adding that the fight for Nagorno-Karabakh is high on their stated platform.
The status of Nagorno-Karabakh became an explosive issue about two years ago, when Armenians began demanding that the mountainous enclave, where the population is overwhelmingly Armenian but the governing republic is Azerbaijan, be placed under Armenian rule.
Custody of the territory has shifted between the two republics since Azerbaijan and Armenia were incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1920. Each people claims historical and cultural ties to the land, and Azerbaijani leaders in the capital city, Baku, balked at the reunification of Nagarno-Karabakh with Armenia. #90 Have Been Killed The dispute ignited centuries-old enmities between the mostly Muslim and Turkic Azerbaijanis and the predominantly Christian Armenians. Before long, the dispute exploded into violence, in which more than 90 people have died.
Leaders of the Karabakh Committee say Soviet leaders used the violence to misrepresent the movement and to distance Moscow from the problem.
''I will not deny that there are historical conflicts between us and Azerbaijan,'' said Ambartsum Galstyan, a committee member who was arrested on Jan. 7. ''But we have never seen the fight for Nagorno-Karabakh as a problem between Yerevan and Baku. It is a problem between Yerevan and Moscow.''
By ESTHER B. FEIN, Special to The New York Times
Published: August 27, 1989