The formerly independent Baltic Republics are looking to tomorrow's Soviet party conference to bring political reform - and greater autonomy from Moscow. The populations of these small, but economically advanced republics have lined up in support of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's struggle against Stalinism and bureaucratic stagnation. But local reformers have also tacked on demands for far-reaching national autonomy, and this is causing a stir within the local Communist Party leadership.
An estimated 10,000 Lithuanians, seeing off their delegates to Moscow on Saturday, urged them to press for more independence. In a rally on Friday reportedly attended by tens of thousands of people in Vilnius, the Lithuanian Restructuring Movement, a new nonparty movement to support Mr. Gorbachev's perestroika policies, announced its demands for a sovereign Lithuania.
Estonian intellectuals led the way by publishing demands for economic autonomy earlier this spring. A wave of popular discontent led to the dismissal of Party Chief Karly Vaino on June 16. The next day, official sources reported that about 150,000 Estonians rallied in Tallinn to support a new, officially-sanctioned People's Front. The new political grouping advocates Gorbachev's perestroika-style reforms along with demands for greater autonomy for Estonia.
Just days earlier in Riga, as many as 100,000 Latvians gathered - in a rally officially sanctioned by the local Communist Party authorities - to commemorate Joseph Stalin's deportation of 15,000 Latvians on that date in 1941. But the June 14 demonstrations quickly developed into more than what authorities had bargained for.
Allowing the demonstration ``was clearly a mistake, a miscalculation by the Latvian Communist Party,'' said Janis Trapans, editor-in-chief of the Latvian Service of Radio Free Europe in Munich.
``They thought they could keep it to an anti-Stalinist protest, but it took a totally different, radical direction and became a protest about what is going on in Latvia now,'' he said. ``As a result, [Latvia's Ideological Secretary Anatolijs] Gorbunovs ended up [giving a speech] in front of people with huge banners that said, `We demand restoration of the state of Latvia.'''
At the rally, high communist officials shared the podium with environmental activists, a former political prisoner, and a Lutheran minister active in human- and religious-rights movements.
Just prior to the demonstrations, the Writers' Union published on the front page of Latvia's literary weekly a demand for ``national sovereignty,'' an end to censorship, restrictions on the KGB, and radical economic reforms.
Since June 14, the base of the Freedom Monument built during Latvia's independence has become a kind of ``Democracy Wall'' covered with handwritten poems, slogans, and short political tracts. Travelers report people walking the streets openly bearing small red and white flags of independent Latvia on their lapels.
In recent days, sources contacted by phone in Riga say reports are circulating widely of a very sharp debate at a closed June 18 Plenum of Latvia's Central Committee. According to these reports, Latvian KGB head Stanislaus Zukulis reportedly claimed that his hands had been tied against the June 14 ``nationalist outburst'' and emphasized that something must be wrong with perestroika if it gets so much praise in the West.
Sources in Latvia have told Latvian exiles that these accounts of the meeting are apparently being leaked by insiders in Riga.
One source recently drove through Latvia. He said unusually large numbers of soldiers were moving closer to Riga. This report lends some credence to the rumor of a threat by some members of the Central Committee to end the apparent ``Riga Spring'' by force. That threat was reportedly countered by the head of a large agricultural enterprise at the plenum who said the soldiers were welcome to use force, but would face difficulties finding food - an apparent hint that repression would be met by strikes and civil disobedience.