COVER

THE DEMANDS FOR AUTONOMY

PEETER KOPVILLEM July 11 1988
COVER

THE DEMANDS FOR AUTONOMY

PEETER KOPVILLEM July 11 1988

THE DEMANDS FOR AUTONOMY

COVER

In the tiny Baltic republic of Estonia, thousands took to the streets of Tallinn, the capital, to send off their 32-member delegation to last week’s Communist party conference in Moscow. The reason for the show of support was clear: those delegates, like their fellows from neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, took to Moscow demands for greater economic, political and cultural autonomy. Such demands have now become all but commonplace in parts of the Soviet Union, as some of the vast nation’s more than 100 nationalities, eager to test the limits of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform policies, seek concessions from Moscow. But when the conference ended last Friday, the delegates returned home with mixed signals—and no commitments.

Rebuke: Gorbachev’s plan to liberalize the Soviet Union and grant greater authority to local governments was clearly in the interest of the Baltic delegates. But the Soviet leader also delivered a rebuke to nationalists. “Any obsession with national isolation,” he said, “can only lead to economic and cultural impoverishment.” He also ruled out claims of the largely Christian Republic of Armenia to NagornoKarabakh, a region inhabited mainly by Armenians and that belongs to Muslim-dominated Azerbaijan. The party, said Gorbachev, was firmly opposed to redrawing boundaries.

Still, Gorbaphev acknowledged that

ethnic problems within the Soviet Union are a real concern. “Collisions may occur,” he said. And such collisions can be devastating, as events last February and March in Armenia and Azerbaijan showed. After Armenians took to the streets to demonstrate for the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh, a backlash in Azerbaijan resulted in the deaths of 32 ethnic Armenians before troops restored order.

Unclear: Last week, it remained unclear how Moscow intended to deal with the still-simmering dispute. It was also unclear how Gorbachev intends to deal with the demands of the Baltic republics, which were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. In Estonia, as in Latvia and Lithuania, the changes brought about by glasnost have been striking, with leading intellectuals regularly making radical demands for greater independence.

Indeed, some Estonian delegates said last week that it was in Gorbachev’s interest to grant greater autonomy to Estonia, whose people enjoy the nation’s highest per capita income. With increased economic activity, the delegates said, the republic could help speed change in other republics. “The tempo of growth is what is important,” said Estonian delegate Juhan Aare. “If there are other states moving faster right by your side, you cannot lag behind.”

But some Baltic delegates raised

another prickly issue: the rapidly increasing number of ethnic Russians living among them. Now only about 54 per cent of Latvia’s 2.6 million people are Latvian, with most of the remainder Russian. Of the 1.5 million people in Estonia, 65 per cent are Estonian while about 28 per cent are Russian. In private, some Estonians say that confrontation is possible if ethnic Russians perceive Estonian nationalism as a threat. And at an April meeting of Estonian writers, artists and academics, poet Jaan Kaplinski said that if Russian immigration was intended to overwhelm the Estonian population, it was doomed to failure. In Northern Ireland, Kaplinski said ominously, Roman Catholics have survived as a minority for hundreds of years—and the country is in a state of civil war.

Call: For his part, Gorbachev last week issued a call for greater ethnic co-operation. “We must do our utmost,” he said, “to protect and nurture our peoples’ brotherhood.” As a result of the conference, it appears likely that Moscow will create a body to oversee ethnic relations. That body will face a difficult task: dealing

with—and containing—the ethnic aspirations and antagonisms within the Soviet Union.

-PEETER KOPVILLEM; with ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Moscow