Latvians, Estonians say 'Yes' to independence


MOSCOW -- Voters in Latvia and Estonia defied the Kremlin yesterday and backed independence by a ratio of more than 2-to-1 in referendums designed to give a moral boost to the Baltic republics' drive to restore their statehood.

In Latvia, officials reported an 85 percent turnout, with about 70 percent of voters backing "a democratic, independent state," according to preliminary returns reported by Soviet television.

In Estonia, the Baltfax news agency reported, about 85 percent of voters went to the polls, and 80 percent of them voted to support "restoration of independent statehood," as the single question on the ballot was phrased. A few districts still had not reported results, the agency said.

Like a parallel poll on Feb. 9 in Lithuania, neither of yesterday's votes has legal force. The leaders of the three Baltic republics hold that they don't have to secede from the Soviet Union because they never legally joined it when the Red Army occupied their territories in 1940.

But Baltic officials hope to deprive President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Soviet conservatives of their oft-repeated argument against the declarations of independence passed by the republics' parliaments last year: that they were approved without consulting the people.

"I think Moscow, too, will have to draw serious conclusions from the results of the referendum," Estonian President Arnold Ruutel said before the voting. "I believe that in our time it is impossible not to take into account the free and democratic expression of opinion of the people."

One Western diplomat in Moscow who frequently presents the case for Baltic independence to Soviet officials said that while certainly no surprise, the pro-independence votes will greatly strengthen the hand of Western governments in such discussions. Most Western states, including the United States, have never recognized the 1940 Soviet annexation of the Baltic states.

Presumably anticipating the results, Mr. Gorbachev had declared such polls "legally invalid" and urged people to vote instead in his union-wide referendum March 17 on the preservation of the Soviet Union. The three Baltic republics and the republics of Moldova, Georgia and Armenia have all said they will refuse to participate in that referendum.

Just before the voting got started yesterday, a bomb went off in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, near a Communist Party building serving as headquarters for Moscow loyalists' attempt to organize the March 17 referendum. Windows were blown out in several surrounding buildings, but no injuries were reported.

Meeting in Moscow yesterday, the leaders of the Democratic Congress, which represents reformist parties and movements in most republics, agreed to campaign for a "no" vote -- against preservation of the union -- in the March 17 referendum. The coalition of more than 30 parties also expressed its backing for Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin in his continuing political duel with Mr. Gorbachev.

The Democratic Congress leaders said they were working on a draft treaty for a "Commonwealth of Sovereign States" to replace Mr. Gorbachev's centralized model for the U.S.S.R.

Last month's independence referendum in Lithuania produced an 84 percent turnout, with fully 90 percent of those voting backing "a democratic, independent Lithuania."

The varying percentages roughly reflected the ethnic mix in the three Baltic republics: Eighty percent of the population of Lithuania is ethnic Lithuanian; 62 percent of inhabitants of Estonia are Estonian; and 52 percent of Latvian residents are ethnic Latvians.

But the results in all three republics, as well as public opinion polls and random interviews, show that many Russians and other members of minority nationalities back independence.

Some have resided in the Baltic republics since birth or early childhood, speak the local language fluently and are completely assimilated. Others have some qualms about minority rights after independence but nonetheless feel that chances for peace and prosperity will be greater in a small, non-Communist European state than in the sprawling decay of the Communist-ruled Soviet Union.

Telephone polling had shown that support for independence among all nationalities rose sharply following Soviet troops' violence in Vilnius and the Latvian capital of Riga in January.

A total of 19 Lithuanian and Latvian civilians and Latvian police officers were killed, along with one KGB soldier apparently killed by a ricocheting Soviet bullet.

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