President Bush announced yesterday as expected that the United States will establish diplomatic relations with the Baltic republics, saying he was now satisfied that Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev will accede to their new status.
Mr. Bush told reporters that he will dispatch a State Department emissary to assist the three Baltic nations -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- in a process he described as "irrevocable."
The president had delayed his long-awaited announcement until yesterday at the request of Mr. Gorbachev, whom the White House had been strongly urging to endorse the Baltic states' independence before the United States acted.
Although the Soviet government still has not acted to recognize the Baltics, Mr. Gorbachev's comments in a television interview Sunday, in which he said he recognized their right to self-determination, were interpreted by Mr. Bush as a signal "in the right direction."
"I'm pleased that, at least, there seems to be some recognition coming out of the center now that this is a proper move," the president said.
Hungary also recognized the Baltics yesterday as its parliament unanimously voted to restore diplomatic ties with the three republics after a break of more than four decades, the Associated Press reported.
Members rose after the vote in Budapest to applaud Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis and the three Baltic republics' foreignministers, who were in attendance in the visitors' gallery, smiling and waving.
Mr. Landsbergis told reporters that resumption of ties with Washington "will mean the complete and greatest possible protection against every possible new aggression."
Mr. Bush, in his last news conference of what has been a relatively hectic four-week vacation here, stressed that his support for Baltic sovereignty should not be seen as a precedent to be applied to other Soviet republics that have also declared their independence from the union.
Instead, he praised Mr. Gorbachev's new plan, unveiled yesterday before the Congress of People's Deputies, for a loose confederation of re publics that would allow them greater autonomy while preserving some form of a central government.
"This is a watershed in Soviet political thinking," Mr. Bush said. "The U.S. strongly supports these efforts."
He emphasized the U.S. desire to retain in the Soviet Union "a strong partner, a convincing partner to deal with" on issues such as arms control and the Middle East, and he questioned whether that could be achieved with a "bunch of partners" if all the republics were to strike out on their own.
But the Baltics, he said, "are quite different."
Domestic pressure for diplomatic recognition of the three states, whose forcible incorporation into the Soviet Union in a 1940 deal with Nazi Germany was never recognized by the United States, escalated dramatically 10 days ago as other nations rushed to accord the Baltics full independent status in the wake of the failed Soviet coup. More than 30 nations have now done so.
But Mr. Bush and his aides maintained that this could best be achieved if the Soviets were cooperating, and they said they didn't want to undermine Mr. Gorbachev's tenuous authority by endorsing the Baltics' sovereignty before Mr. Gorbachev acted to free them.
White House patience was already waning last Tuesday, when Mr. Bush sent Mr. Gorbachev a cable telling him that the U.S. announcement would come Friday and urging him to move first.
A Gorbachev aide sent back a message to Ed Hewitt, top Soviet adviser to the National Security Council, asking for more time. Mr. Bush sent back word that he would wait until yesterday.
"We couldn't put it off any longer," a senior administration official said.
"When history is written, nobody is going to remember that we took 48 hours more than Iceland or whoever else it is," Mr. Bush said yesterday. "What's going to be remembered is what happens, how does it work out. And that's what we're interested in."
Mr. Bush also announced yesterday the creation of what he and British Prime Minister John Major called "lifeline" teams to provide humanitarian aid and help the Soviet republics during the coming winter.
Two delegations are to be dispatched from the Department of Agriculture to survey critical food requirements and to coordinate public and private efforts to help with food distribution.
The president also said he was extending a year-old medical assistance program to the Soviet Union through the end of 1992.