Baltic States Have Been Making Steady Movement Toward Independence

September 01, 1991|By LEONARD LATKOVSKI

On Monday, five days after the collapse of the coup by the Soviet hard-liners, a local Estonian policeman stood guard at the closed Communist party headquarters in Tallinn, the Estonian capital.

Meanwhile, the Latvian Foreign Minister Janis Jurkans, alonwith his Lithuanian and Estonian counterparts, was in Western Europe signing diplomatic agreements with Norway, Germany, France and other countries re-establishing diplomatic relations. And in Lithuania the government was issuing Lithuanian passports to its citizens and visas to foreign travelers.

Each of these events is an example of how the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been preparing themselves for independence.

The uniform of the Estonian policeman was new, modeled after Finnish police clothing and recently introduced to replace the Soviet militia uniform.

Latvian Foreign Minister Jurkan -- an urbane, polished gentleman -- was chosen for this post (more than a year ago) not only because he is an effective diplomat, but because his excellent command of English makes him an effective spokesman in the West. He has appeared before the U.S. Congress and has met President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III. Mr. Jurkans in not unique; Estonia and Lithuania also have chosen capable English-speaking diplomats.

The Lithuanian visas and passports issued this week were prepared well in advance in anticipation of independence.

In many other ways Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have been laying the groundwork for their return to the status on independent nations. They have printed their own postage stamps, are printing new currency and minting coins, creating international telecommunications networks, forming national guard units and establishing border control and customs systems. They have also begun the process of establishing economic ties with both East and West.

One of the remarkable results of the failed Soviet coup has been the accelerated process of Baltic independence. Since August 21, about 30 nations have given diplomatic recognition to the independent Baltic governments. For the United States, it now appears to be a matter of time. President Bush said yesterday that in talking to Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis he gave a strong signal that he will announce tomorrow the opening of U.S. diplomatic relations with the Baltic countries. "I said that we'd probably have something to say on Monday that would be of great interest to the people there," Mr. Bush said.

Fifty-one years after their illegal annexation into the Soviet Union, these three countries are re-entering the world community. Each will now have the chance to re-establish its economy, society and political system in a democratic manner, and the prospects for their ability to once again become viable nations are promising.

There will be difficulties in moving from a Soviet political and economic structure to a pluralistic and free market system, yet there are a variety of factors in the Baltic identity and historical experience which will facilitate the process.

First, the experience of two decades of independence between the world wars showed that these three counties could exist as independent states. Each had a viable economy with a standard of living higher that that of neighbors such as Denmark and Finland. They governed themselves adequately, although there pTC were political problems typical of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.

Also, as members of the League of Nations and other international organizations, there were respected members of the world community. This experience of nation-building and the memory of independence were strong factors in helping the people survive the Soviet years.

Second, the Baltic states were never fully assimilated into the Soviet system. Communist rule in the Baltic was based on rigid military control. The result was a veneer of Communism beneath which remained a repressed but strong identity of national needs and interests. When Moscow began to allow self-expression through the policy of glasnost, it was no coincidence that the Baltic cultural identity and the sentiment for self-determination emerged.

Being closer to Europe (especially Scandinavia and Poland), the Baltics were the most Westernized part of the Soviet empire in outlook and culture. Their capitals of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnuis became havens for Soviet citizens seeking diversity, more modern consumer goods, and relief from the dullness of Communism life. Their European architecture, their well-stocked shops and their open churches reflected a different society.

After Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the policy of glasnost, the Baltics moved quietly to the forefront of the reform movement in the Soviet Union.

The Popular Front movements which began as reform-minded rivals to the stagnant Communist Party and soon developed into independence movements. The Baltics were the first to create progressive and relatively independent radio and television stations and newspapers.

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