Watch on the Baltics

January 06, 1991

Just a year ago, the fate of the Soviet Union's three Baltic republics was front-page news. Lithuania declared independence and a violent confrontation with Moscow appeared inevitable. The crisis however, never reached flashpoint.

Now, even as war clouds darken over the Persian Gulf, ominous developments are again taking place in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. And Americans should pay attention.

"Your [the George Bush] administration is sending to the Kremlin a very confused signal. A clear policy is lacking," complains Tunne Kelam, an Estonian independence leader. He is fearful of a "creeping crackdown" in which Soviet troops and the KGB would gradually suppress nationalist movements in all of the Baltic countries.

Mr. Kelam thinks that Secretary of State James Baker may have inadvertently encouraged the embattled Gorbachev regime to consider such a strategy by warning the Soviets recently only against using "excessive repressive measures." (Indeed, KGB Chief Vladimir Kryuchkov later approvingly cited the Baker statement as a sign that the West understood the Kremlin's need to take tough measures to maintain order in separatist republics).

Perhaps a White House clarification is needed to re-emphasize to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev that U.S. Baltic policy is unchanged and that any violence against those three nations would be a matter of utmost seriousness.

A half a century ago, the United States took a proud and principled stand against a 1939 devil's pact between Nazi Germany and Stalin, which signed Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia away to the Soviet Union. As leaders kept changing in the Kremlin, the United States, almost alone in the world, continued to maintain that the forceful Soviet annexation of the Baltic nations was illegal and should not be tolerated. This, to us, has been a good policy. And it remains good policy.

The Bush administration has been prudent in not prematurely recognizing Lithuania's nationalist government, which proclaims independence but is not master of its own house. Washington is caught between its need for a stable Soviet Union under reformist leadership and its commitment to the Baltic states. A certain ambiguity is in order during the current transition. But if U.S. policy is to be moral as well as prudent, it must be grounded in the belief that self-determination for Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia is not only an inescapable right but a goal that can be -- and should be -- achieved only through a process of peaceful change inside the Soviet Union.

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