MOSCOW -- The heavy pro-independence balloting in Estonia and Latvia on Sunday, in which "yes" votes outnumbered "no" votes 3-to-1, nonetheless would fall short of the margin required to secede from the U.S.S.R. under a law President Mikhail S. Gorbachev insists he will enforce.
The law on secession, rushed through the Supreme Soviet last spring after Lithuania declared its independence, requires a pro-independence vote from two-thirds of all eligible voters in a republic to start a five-year secession process.
In both Estonia and Latvia, just over 64 percent of all eligible voters cast their ballots in favor of independence. In Lithuania's referendum last month, 77 percent of eligible voters backed independence, exceeding the two-thirds mark.
Latvian President Anatolijs Gorbunovs proclaimed yesterday that the vote showed the people are behind the pro-independence republican leadership and said he hoped the vote would persuade Moscow to ease its stand against Baltic secession.
But the leaders of Ravnopraviye (Equal Rights), the anti-independence bloc in Parliament, noted that the vote fell short of the two-thirds majority.
All three Baltic republics held their referendums as non-binding opinion polls aimed at dramatizing the overwhelming public support for independence.
Sunday's balloting certainly achieved that goal, reaching high turnouts and a big majority in favor of independence in both republics. In Estonia, with an 82.8 percent turnout, 77.8 percent of those voting backed independence. In Latvia, turnout was 87.6 percent, and 73.1 of people going to the polls supported independence.
Those turnout figures and majorities are impressive by the standards of virtually any Western democracy, and turnouts never approach such levels in U.S. elections. But when the fact that not all eligible voters came to the polls is taken into account, the percent in favor falls short of two-thirds.
The law states that if a secession vote falls short of the two-thirds mark, another vote may not be held for 10 years. And even if the two-thirds vote is reached and the transition period begins, a second referendum must be held at the end of the five years. Only if the two-thirds mark is again achieved -- and the secession approved by the U.S.S.R. Congress of People's Deputies -- is independence granted.
The Baltic leaders say the law on secession does not apply to their republics because they never legally joined the Soviet Union but were forcibly annexed in 1940.
Tomorrow, Mr. Gorbachev is expected to meet republican leaders in the Federation Council to discuss the draft union treaty, the Soviet president's plan for a revamped U.S.S.R.