Polls in Baltics rebut Gorbachev claims of support

January 28, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Despite claims to the contrary by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and other Soviet officials, support among Russians and other ethnic minorities in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia for independence from the Soviet Union is substantial and growing fast in the wake of recent violence by Soviet troops, polls show.

The polls show the misleading nature of a barrage of telegrams and letters from Russian-speakers repeatedly cited by Mr. Gorbachev in backing his hard line against Baltic independence and the elected leaders who advocate it. A former KGB general said last week that such telegram campaigns are often organized by the security agency.

The poll data support contentions by reformist politicians that Soviet military intervention in the Baltic republics has little to do with preventing ethnic conflict and much to do with preventing secession and preserving the empire.

In Lithuania, where 14 people died when troops stormed broadcasting facilities Jan. 13, a poll taken the next day recorded approval of the republic's declaration of independence by 75 percent of Russian residents and 66 percent of Polish residents questioned, said Vladas Gaidys of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences.

The same face-to-face poll of 622 people showed that Russians and Poles in the republic rate Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis, portrayed in the official Soviet media as a fanatical Lithuanian chauvinist, far higher than Mr. Gorbachev.

It recorded only minority support among Slavs in Lithuania for imposition of direct presidential rule from Moscow, the hard-line option Mr. Gorbachev insists is being demanded by them. Of respondents, 16 percent of Russians and 23 percent of Poles favored such a decision.

"After the tragic events, support for independence grew among all nationalities," Mr. Gaidys said in a telephone interview Friday from Vilnius. "You could feel it in the air, even before we got the data back."

He acknowledged that the poll was conducted quickly and with less than his organization's usual preparation and care. But a separate telephone poll found a similar percentage of non-Lithuanians -- about 70 percent -- favoring independence, he said.

Past polls have found 30 percent to 60 percent supporting independence among non-Lithuanians, depending on the timing of the poll and the phrasing of the question. Support has been growing but soared as a result of the assaults, he said.

"After the bloodshed, most Russians wanted to dissociate themselves from what happened," Mr. Gaidys said. "At that moment the ideal of the Soviet man was broken. There was nothing left to identify with. People feel they can choose to move to Russia or to stay in Lithuania, but either way they do not identify with the Soviet Union."

Correspondingly, the rating of Russian Federation leader Boris N. Yeltsin, who supports the sovereignty of both Russia and Lithuania, was twice as high among Russians polled in Lithuania as that of Mr. Gorbachev, who represents the union.

In Latvia, a poll in early December showed that among Russian-speaking minorities, 47 percent favored independence. 41 percent wanted Latvia to sign a new union treaty and remain in the union, and just 3 percent favored presidential rule from Moscow, said Brigitta Zepa, who conducts polls for the Latvian Council of Ministers.

Ms. Zepa said that question has not been repeated since the bloodshed in Vilnius and in Riga, Latvia, where five people were killed Jan. 20 in a gunfight between Soviet riot troops and Latvian police.

However, the rating among Slavs of the pro-independence Latvian government grew significantly between Jan. 12, before the Vilnius violence, and Jan. 17, she said.

On Jan. 12, 43 percent of non-Latvians in the republic said they supported the Latvian government and 30 percent said they did not support it. Five days later, 62 percent expressed support and 24 percent said they did not, Ms. Zepa said.

In the third Baltic republic, Estonia, the most recent poll, in mid-December, showed that of non-Estonians, 19 percent supported full independence, 41 percent supported independence with close economic and political ties to the Soviet Union, and 36 percent wanted to remain in the U.S.S.R., said Juhan Kivirakh of the republic's Center for the Study of Public Opinion.

On the day of the Lithuanian poll, Mr. Gorbachev told the Supreme Soviet of "a great flood" of telegrams opposing the Lithuanian leadership and independence and demanding presidential rule.

Such statements have become commonplace in the Kremlin since Lithuania became the first republic to declare its independence last March. Soviet officials, however, never cite poll data.

The reason, former KGB Gen. Oleg D. Kalugin said last week, is that telegrams and letters are easily manipulated.

"I myself took part in preparing such telegrams and letters as the president talked about," said Mr. Kalugin, who broke with the agency last year.

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