RIGA, USSR — LEGISLATORS in Latvia are openly concerned about the possibility of a military takeover in the Baltic republics, which have been campaigning for independence from the Soviet Union. The Soviet Defense Ministry's announcement this week that it would deploy thousands of troops to the Baltic republics (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) is taken very seriously here.
``They are probing for weak spots - something to give them an excuse to introduce presidential rule and deprive us of our sovereignty,'' says Latvian parliamentary member Yuris Dobelis.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev yesterday sent a message to the parliament of neighboring Lithuania, in which he threatened to impose presidential rule over Lithuania unless the parliament abrogates pro-independence legislation.
In his statement, Mr. Gorbachev claimed the crisis that led to the resignation of the Lithuanian Cabinet on Tuesday was caused by ``a desire under slogans of democracy to pursue a policy aimed at restoring the bourgeois system.'' He said that ``the situation is virtually reaching an impasse,'' and referred to demands from the ``people'' for the introduction of presidential rule.
Latvian legislators say a military takeover of the Baltic republics could coincide with a war in the Persian Gulf, which appears more likely as Iraq seems set to ignore the United Nations' deadline of Jan. 15 for withdrawal from Kuwait.
``The Kremlin always does its dirty work during times of international crisis,'' says parliamentary member Indulis Berz, referring to the 1956 invasion of Hungary, which coincided with the Suez crisis. ``In the next few weeks, it will all become clear.''
Latvian officials have reason to be concerned. In the fall 1990 draft, 4,000 men in Latvia were conscripted, but only about 25 percent of those called were actually inducted. The remaining 3,000 either are part of an alternative service or are avoiding the draft altogether.
The republic's alternative service law, which allows youths legally to avoid the Army by working in such positions as hospital volunteers and police officers, has become a source of conflict. The Army has not clearly defined its stance on alternative service and whether it considers those serving in it as draft dodgers.
Some Latvian youths say they'll do anything to avoid military service, including going into hiding if the Army comes after them.
About 250 Latvians deserted the Army last year in an effort to escape constant beatings, according to Inese Reinberga, a representative of the Latvian Women's League, an activist group. Brutality in the ranks is institutionalized, she adds.
``Because of anti-Baltic hysteria whipped up by the central media, boys from the Baltic region are singled out for especially severe treatment in the Army,'' Ms. Reinberga says.
``Perhaps the best way to keep our sons safe is by hiding them.''
But such action could provoke the Army, something officials are working to prevent through negotiations and dialogue. Clarifying the status of the approximately 5,000 youths in alternative services is a top priority.
Latvian President Anatolijs Gorbunovs on Wednesday held meetings with a national parliament delegation on the status of the Soviet Army in Latvia. He is also in frequent telephone contact with Chief of the General Staff Mikhail Moiseyev. At the same time, Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis has been meeting with representatives of the Army. Further talks were scheduled for yesterday and today.
The Army has said it won't go after draft dodgers in Latvia until Jan. 13. Nevertheless, there have already been several reported incidents of suspects being detained in the western part of the republic, according to the Latvian parliament press center.
``You really can't trust anything the military says,'' says legislator Janis Freimanis. ``But on the other hand, you have to give everything they say the proper amount of respect.''
Although there is a flurry of activity in the ornate halls of the parliament building, all appears relatively normal on the narrow, cobblestone streets of Riga's old town.
Residents seem to go about the daily job of finding essential supplies oblivious to sightings of troop carriers in the capital.
Beneath the surface, there is a different story.
Discontent is widespread over drastic price increases introduced Jan. 3. Meat, dairy, and bread prices rose up to 300 percent.
``They have raised prices, but haven't provided any safeguards, such as compensation for people with low incomes. How do they expect us to live decently?'' Galina Kharlamova, a factory worker, asked at a small demonstration outside the Council of Ministers building.
The discontent is placing added pressure on the government and could serve as an additional tool of Moscow to foment unrest, some legislators say.
In Lithuania, it was unrest over prices that brought down the government of Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene this week. Authorities then declared a moratorium on the intended price hikes.
If Moscow does send tanks into the Baltics, many say the only option open to Latvians is passive resistance.
``We have no arms to fight tanks,'' says Vents Kainaizis, spokesman for the Latvian Popular Front, the republic's most influential political force. ``We can only act like Gandhi did in India and use peaceful means to resist.''
The parliament has taken precautionary measures to protect Latvia's sovereignty, however. First Deputy Chairman of the parliament Dainis Ivans has been sent to Scandinavia and has been given the authority to act as a government in exile if Moscow cracks down in Riga.