WORLD

RESTIVE REPUBLICS

THE BALTIC STATES CHALLENGE MOSCOW BY VOTING FOR MORE ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL INDEPENDENCE

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 29 1989
WORLD

RESTIVE REPUBLICS

THE BALTIC STATES CHALLENGE MOSCOW BY VOTING FOR MORE ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL INDEPENDENCE

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 29 1989

RESTIVE REPUBLICS

THE BALTIC STATES CHALLENGE MOSCOW BY VOTING FOR MORE ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL INDEPENDENCE

WORLD

When Dainis Ivans began speaking to about 5,000 people in Tallinn in the Soviet republic of Estonia, many listeners fidgeted impatiently. Ivans, the earnest leader of neighboring Latvia’s Popular Front, read slowly and in a near-monotone from a prepared text during a political rally in Tallinn’s historic town square one Saturday this month. But the crowd, many of them brandishing the previously banned flags of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, warmed noticeably when Ivans finally hit his theme: the need for greater economic and political independence for the Baltic republics. “Moscow,” he declared to a roar from a now-appreciative audience, “must not interfere with the destiny of our peoples any longer.” Last week, transforming such rhetoric into action, the legislatures of Estonia and Lithuania passed bills aimed at dramatically increasing their powers. And Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev—returning home from China where students hailed him as a heroic reformer—was faced with restive Soviet citizens who maintain that he has not gone far enough.

Leading the drive were residents of the three tiny Baltic states, which together are home to only three per cent of the Soviet population but form a major trouble spot for Gorbachev. At the first-ever meeting of the three states’ Popular Fronts in Tallinn on May 13 and 14, delegates passed a motion favoring “economic independence” by next year. Last week in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, the local legislature declared the republic “sovereign”—although not fully independent—and discussed creating its own currency. And in Tallinn, Estonian legislators discussed provisions that would allow limited private property. Both bodies rejected previous proposals by a Politburo commission studying expanded powers for all republics. Estonian Prime Minister

Indrek Toome said that the proposal amounted to telling the republics, “You are going to live the way we permit you.” Added Toome: “Such an approach is unacceptable.”

The republics’ recent actions represent the most direct challenges yet to Moscow’s control over the Baltics. Delegates at the Popular Front meeting in Tallinn included more than 80 members of the newly elected Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies. Many of them called on Moscow to renounce the 1939 MolotovRibbentrop Pact, which allowed the Soviet Union to annex the Baltic states in return for signing a nonaggression treaty with Nazi Germany. Before that, the three republics had been independent for barely more than 20 years—they were previously provinces of imperial Russia.

Now, many Baltic residents, along with most Western governments, maintain that the Soviet Union has no legal right to the area. Said Kullo Arjakas, a member of Estonia’s Popular Front: “We should not discuss leaving the Soviet Union because we do not belong to it.” He added,

“The real issue is how to put in practice the independence that we should have by law.”

Many Baltic residents are plainly working toward that goal. All three republics have reinstituted use of the flags they flew as independent states, and most public meetings begin with the singing of previously banned national anthems. Lithuania and Estonia have passed laws that establish the legal primacy of their native languages over Russian. And Latvia has adopted a draft proposal for similar legislation. Although Russian is the shared language of the three republics, delegates at the joint Tallinn meeting used interpreters to deal with each other in their native tongues. Russian and English were declared “unofficial working languages.” Perhaps inevitably, such steps have produced a backlash among Soviet authorities. Last winter, Politburo member Alexander Ya-

kovlev, who is regarded as Gorbachev’s closest ally on the ruling body, rejected suggestions that the Baltic republics might be allowed to take any major steps toward independence. And the state-run Soviet media, which initially gave favorable coverage to the three Popular

Fronts' activities, now usually criticize or simply ignore them.

Underlying the tensions are deep differences between Baltic natives and the rest of the Soviet Union. Tallinn, which sits on the Gulf of Finland, is markedly Western in appearance and attitude. Because of its proximity to Helsinki, which is four hours away by ferry, the city has become renowned as the one place in the Soviet Union with easy access to Western radio and television—including a Finnish-language version of the American soap opera Dallas (the Estonian language is related to

Finnish). Many ethnic Estonians have the blond, Nordic appearance of their Western neighbors, and favor acid-washed jeans and sweatshirts with English-language expressions. At the popular Nord Restaurant in Tallinn’s Old Town one recent weekend, a pianist sang Estonian-language versions of songs by Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Cole Porter.

But measures to strengthen their own culture—and open a wider window to the West— have severely strained relations with the region’s large ethnic Russian population. Ethnic Latvians now make up nearly 54 percent of that republic’s population of 2.6 million, while Russians comprise 33 per cent. In Estonia, nearly 65 per cent of the 1.6-million population is ethnic Estonian, while 28 per cent is Russian. About 80 per cent of Lithuania’s 3.6-million

population is Lithuanian—the rest is Russian and Polish. Ethnic Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians have repeatedly argued that their language and culture need special protection in order to avoid being assimilated. Ethnic Russians, however, have expressed bitter resentment over the Baltic republics’ challenge to the official status of the Russian language. Some Baltic residents also advocate limiting the number of Russians allowed to live in, or move into, the region. Said Valdis Steins, a law professor

and member of Latvia’s Popular Front: “Our people have come close enough to extinction to be willing to fight for their future.”

Those sentiments are spreading beyond the Baltics. Attending the Tallinn meeting were members of newly formed groups from the neighboring republic of Byelorussia and from the eastern Caucasus republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Each of those republics has a first language other than Russian. “Our language and culture have been strangled by Moscow,” said Zenon Poznyak, a member of the Byelorussian People’s Front. “But they have survived, and they will survive.” Proposals that express such feelings were prepared for the May 25 opening of the firstever session of the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies in Moscow. Baltic deputies drafted a series of resolutions proclaiming that each

Soviet republic should have the right to selfdetermination and to choose their own “historical path.” Those resolutions, said Marju Lauristin, a parliamentary deputy and leader of Estonia’s Popular Front, should “rally all progressive deputies, wherever they may be.” Clearly, the nationalist struggle in the culturally diverse Soviet Union is entering a new—and potentially revolutionary—phase.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH