What happened to the Baltic states through the deadly connivance of Hitler and Stalin has finally been reversed. With the granting of U.S. diplomatic recognition, the independence of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia is now "inexorable," in the word of President Bush, and, indeed, virtually an accomplished fact. The Soviet Union is in such disarray that Western acceptance of Baltic breakaway had become as important as Soviet acquiescence, which now seems only a matter of time.
Nevertheless, it is of some interest that President Bush did not await formal action by Moscow despite administration assertions last week that President Mikhail S. Gorbachev would be allowed to set the pace. Two conclusions, not necessarily contradictory, can be deduced. One, that Mr. Bush was feeling so much pressure domestically from very vocal Baltic-American groups that he dared not delay after 36 other nations had granted recognition. Two, that Mr. Gorbachev, having said that any of the 15 Soviet republics could opt for independence, needed U.S. pressure to force the Soviet Congress of Deputies to acknowledge that the Baltic states are choosing political freedom.
Political freedom, however, is not identical with economic freedom. After 51 years of foreign occupation, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are so tightly tied to an interlocking Soviet production system designed to promote unity among 100 different nationalities that any turn westward will be painful and protracted.
As Mr. Bush remarked in his Kennebunkport press conference: "Where does the energy come from? How do the steel imports go?" There is another question, too: What will happen to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians sent to the Baltics in the past half-century to man factories and partially colonize these little countries? Estonian authorities already have enacted statutes against the use of the Russian language in commerce. They are considering granting citizenship only to families whose roots pre-date 1940, an ungenerous idea replete with complications for numerous inter-marriages.
The Baltics have better prospects for economic viability than most other Soviet republics. Despite two centuries of incorporation in the czarist empire, despite a history of independence limited to the years 1918 to 1940, despite the ravages of World War II and the dislocations of Cold War Soviet rule, these little nations are remarkably Western-oriented. They are also surplus food producers, which will give them leverage in dealing with Moscow for manufactured products.
The United States, having for years kept alive the hope for Baltic independence through ritualistic "Captive Nation Days," should follow up diplomatic ties with meaningful economic assistance. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia deserve nothing less.