THE "singing revolutions" of the Baltic nations show all humanity how to strive for progressive change while minimizing violence - at home and with neighbors. The success of Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians in regaining their independent statehood owes much to their methods.Most national independence movements are born and carried out in violence and chaos, often setting back social and economic progress for years. Some get nowhere - devouring themselves or being devoured. Nonviolence is not genetic. Lithuania conquered much of today's Byelorussia and the Ukraine in the 14th century. With Poland, Lithuania fought Russia for centuries. Each Baltic nation had to fend off the Red Army to win independence in 1920. Many Balts fought again during World War II - some against Reds, some against Browns - and in an anti-Soviet "Forest Brotherhood" after 1945. But Baltic identities are rooted more in culture than in feats of battle. Today, as in the 19th century, the Baltic peoples have built their unity on singing revolutions. Estonia's Festival of Song and Dance last year attracted 500,000 persons to Tallinn, a celebration in which 28,000 singers and 6,000 dancers took part. This was the 21st such gathering since 1869, and the first since 1940 to avoid obligatory bows to Stalin or his Kremlin successors. Not by accident, the president of Lithuania is a music professor and composer. Balts are not deaf to modern music - classical or rock. On Feb. 23, 1991 - the Day of the Soviet Army - bands from Moscow, Latvia, Lithuania, Byelorussia, and Estonia held a six-hour-long concert in Tallinn to raise funds for survivors of January's military crackdowns in Vilnius and Riga. Poetry and song fuse. Finland's national epic, "Kalevala," recalls great competitions in which one singer "sings" another into the ground. Stitched together from local tales into a whole, publication of "Kalevala" inspired similar work in Estonia, where "Son of Kalevi" was published in 1857. Three decades later, Latvia's epic, "The Bear Slayer," was also published. Each tale sparked national consciousness - and Russian repression. The national reawakening throughout the Baltic is not so much against outsiders as for those who have made the Baltic their home for ages. Each Baltic nation has occupied the same geographical niche and used the same tongue for thousands of years. Of living languages, Lithuanian and Latvian are the closest to Proto-Indo-European. Latvians and Estonians were enserfed by Germans, Swedes, and Russians for more that 500 years; Lithuanians, by Poles and Russians for several centuries. How did they regain a se nse of national identity? In part by song festivals and epic poetry. The Balts' first singing revolution occurred in the 19th century. Literacy and schools spread in the Baltic provinces faster than in most parts of the czarist empire. Rural schools and pastors taught communities to sing traditional songs. When railroads linked Baltic port cities and inland villages, song festivals joined choirs from parishes throughout each land. They brought word that nations lived and wanted to throw off alien rule. Song festivals made them understand: "We are a people with beautiful t raditions worth keeping and developing." The czar responded with Russification campaigns, but the seeds of unity blossomed. As Bolsheviks replaced czars, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia asserted their independence. To be sure, Balts have deep grievances against the Soviet "Center especially the secret police and all-Union ministries that tried to keep a stranglehold on every aspect of Soviet life. But the Balts announced their demands for independence and worked to implement them in a lawful, step-by-step manner. Balts have exploited glasnost to underscore the illegal foundations of their absorption into the USSR. They pressed Moscow to renounce the 1939 Stalin-Hitler deal and the rigged 1940 elections that installed Communist parliaments in the Baltics. In 1989, some 2 million Baltic citizens took part in a "hands across the Baltics" demonstration on the 50th anniversary of the Stalin-Hitler pact. Balts have sought freedom in ways designed to avoid confrontations with the Kremlin. They used Gorbachev's perestroika campaign to maximize their economic autonomy. When Gorbachev called for a "law-governed state," Balts put into practice the rights given the Union republics by the Soviet constitutions of 1936 and 1977. When Gorbachev called for a revitalized Communist Party, most Baltic Communists asserted their independence of the centrally controlled Communist Party of the Soviet Union. When Gorbachev blessed "informal" organizations to supplement the Communist Party, the Baltics established "Popular Fronts membership open to Communists and non-Communists - to work for perestroika. When the Kremlin finally got around to denouncing environmental pollution within the USSR, Balts mobilized to prevent further pillage of their soil, water, and air by Moscow-based ministries and the Soviet Armed Forces. Balts have been criticized for ignoring or even abusing the human rights of non-Balts in their midst. They have passed laws requiring knowledge of the local language as a condition for holding positions of public trust in government or medicine. They have instituted residency requirements for voting suffrage. They have distributed ration coupons to keep aliens from buying goods in short supply. Many have denounced migrants for acting like conquerors - exploiting Baltic resources and not caring about loca l culture or language. Nor can Balts forget huge numbers of kinsmen who perished under Stalin and his successors. They yearn for the apartments and land now occupied by Soviet migrants or soldiers. SUCH "discrimination" is predictable. Similar attitudes exist in all oppressed countries seeking liberation from a foreign yoke. Language laws and residence requirements are common in most of the world. What is remarkable is that so little violence has taken place between natives and non-Balts. Even more remarkable, more than half of non-Balts voted for Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian independence earlier this year. Balts have practiced nonviolent resistance in the face of armed repression and economic blockade from Moscow. Some Balts were tempted to die fighting, if only to inspire more support from the lethargic governments of Western Europe and America. But most Balts have just stood their ground behind primitive barricades. When some died beneath Soviet tanks, others mourned but did not fight. Many individuals in the Baltics might merit a Nobel prize - the founders of the popular fronts; the organizers of citizens' congresses that voted for independence, premiers and presidents of the new governments who shuttle hopefully to Moscow and the West looking for recognition. Already history records dozens of individuals without whom the peaceful movement toward independence could have been derailed. One might even award a laurel to the Communists and non-Baltic elites who have done so little to sabo tage Baltic unity. A wide cast - former Communists, political camp inmates, late-born free thinkers, civic-minded journalists, and, most important, millions of ordinary citizens - has made the singing revolutions. To a world filled with violence, greed, corruption, ignorance, and inefficiency, the Baltic symphony brings fresh hope. All those who have made the singing revolutions merit the highest accolade for peace.