Free the Baltics!

August 23, 1991

Here's some advice for Mikhail S. Gorbachev: Free the Baltics and do it fast.

Half a century after Stalin seized Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in a criminal deal with Hitler, the defeat of the reactionary coup against your leadership gives you the opening you need.

What would be the advantages of such a dramatic move?

* You would pre-empt an initiative that has already been %J advocated by your once-and-future rival for power, Boris N. Yeltsin.

* You would put real meaning in the proposed new union treaty with the various Soviet republics by acknowledging that the Baltics, as victims of a Stalinist crime, have a right to the independence their governments are demanding.

* You would enormously "enhance good will in the United States" (we are quoting President Bush) and thus put more pressure on Washington to increase its aid for your devastated economy.

* You may even generate enough good will in the Baltics to encourage them to enter a voluntary association with the Soviet federation. This might serve as a model to ease breakaway tendencies in Ukraine, Georgia and other republics far more central to Soviet cohesion.

If Mr. Gorbachev would adopt such a course, he would be traveling a route in which roadblocks are fast being removed. Latvia and Estonia declared independence this week, a challenge the restored Soviet president is in no position to put down by force or otherwise. Lithuania, having stuck to its earlier declaration of independence, is equally restive. With coup-makers in jail and the army, KGB and the Interior Ministry in a submissive mood, Mr. Gorbachev now can make political gestures that are in accord with his democratic protestations.

A good sign: Yesterday, Soviet troops were withdrawn from the Vilnius TV tower and studio they seized in January when hard-liners were muscling Mr. Gorbachev off his reformist course.

The Baltics no doubt will be high on the agenda when Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin meet today to discuss their own very sensitive relationship and the union treaty that provoked plotters opposed to both men. The treaty is an attempt to cede important powers to the republics without eviscerating central authority entirely. It is an issue that Americans versed in the early history of their own country can well understand.

However, what Americans cannot understand -- or tolerate -- is the premise that territorial seizures during the time of the 1939-1941 Hitler-Stalin pact have any legitimacy. The United States has never recognized the Soviet takeover of the Baltics even though various presidents, including Mr. Bush, have been wary of tangling with Moscow on this point. But with these little republics bravely rebellious and right-wing constraints on Mr. Gorbachev vanishing quickly, Mr. Bush senses the change and is now urging immediate negotiations on Baltic independence. Good.

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