The currents of change sweeping the Soviet Union's western republics are creating waves in North America. For decades, Baltic activist groups in the West have called for total political independence for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. In addition, the groups have worked to support cultural, linguistic, and nationalist demands.
Now that Moscow is allowing some of the freedoms being pushed for - the formation of mass popular movements, and the use of national flags and anthems - activists this side of the Atlantic wonder: Should they applaud, or push harder?
Tomorrow the Latvian Popular Front holds its first congress in Riga. The Estonian Popular Front met last weekend, and the Lithuanian Movement for the Support of Perestroika (restructuring) will have its first congress later this month.
Viktor Nakas of the Lithuanian Information Center in Washington says there is ``careful optimism'' about the fronts and the unprecedented mass demonstrations of the past year. But, he adds, ``the jury's still out,'' indicating skepticism that Moscow's tolerance will last.
Aristids Lambergs, former president of the American Latvian Association (ALA), says: ``We all are delighted ... by the events that have been happening.'' But, Mr. Lambergs stresses, he is under no illusions that Moscow ``is going to give up the Baltic states in the near future.''
Part of the reason for the caution is that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost (openness) has extended only to the officially sanctioned movements that support his reforms. Numerous other nationalist, environmental, cultural, and religious groups have so far had to operate as ``nonformal'' groups.
``We feel very strongly that the [officially sanctioned Estonian] Front is obviously something for the good,'' says Mary Ann Rikken, vice-president of the Estonian American National Council. ``What has confused the issue,'' she says, is that the front's members include ``many people ... who, in the past, worked hard to maintain the party line.
The concern voiced by Ms. Rikken and other activists interviewed was that the regional Communist Parties might still be seeking to coopt the mass movements and blunt the move for independence.
Just this week, the seven Western Latvian representatives invited to the Latvian congress were denied visas, says Ojars Kalnins, an official of the American Latvian Association. According to Mr. Kalnins, ALA President Valdis Pavlovskis was told by Soviet officials that the invitations were withdrawn, but a representative of the Latvian front refuted that, saying the invitations still stood.
``Despite all the talk from Moscow about giving autonomy, [Latvians] can't even invite guests to their own homeland,'' Mr. Kalnins charges.
There are several hundred Baltic groups in the US, Canada, and Western Europe, whose main role is ``serving as a kind of a voice'' for the Baltic people, Kalnins says. They convey information to the outside, but also ``get information back'' to the Baltics.