Baltic Standoff

MOBS tried to break open the doors to parliament buildings in Estonia and Latvia this week, but they're not likely to reopen the question of whether the Baltics should remain in the Soviet Union. That question has been firmly answered in the negative by voters and their representatives in all three Baltic republics. Their decision, of course, could still be nullified by force. While most structures of communist control in the region have disintegrated, the KGB and military retain a large presence. Tanks have already rolled through the streets of Baltic capitals in a show of muscle. If conditions worsened to the point where Russian refugees flowed out of the Baltics, a military response could be imminent.

A crackdown, however, would be costly for a Soviet leadership trying to leave Stalinism behind and needing international help to rescue a suffocating economy.

Mikhail Gorbachev has chosen, instead, rhetorical barrages - such as statements condemning independence measures in Estonia and Latvia - and a commercial hammerlock on Lithuania. These tactics probably won't force the Baltics into respect for Soviet law. Most people in the republics say they never legally joined the union, so why should they jump through legal hoops to leave it.

But asserting independence isn't the same as attaining it. The Balts know that a process of bargaining with Moscow is critical, and they're ready to start. Mr. Gorbachev may be ready too, but he's hemmed in by political forces: Russian nationalism, the army's distaste for ``softness,'' the public's disgust with his indecision.

The Baltics could be an opportunity for Gorbachev to reassert his progressiveness and strike a deal that salvages Soviet interests while granting something approaching genuine independence. The present standoff does nothing - except heighten domestic tensions and weaken relations with the West.

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