AS Mikhail Gorbachev played traditional Soviet politics, consolidating power and shuffling the Politburo, activists in the Baltic republics were giving Soviet tradition the boot. Waving once-banned national flags, they proclaimed their intent to loosen ties to Moscow, manage their own politics and economy, and assert their cultural distinctness. Mr. Gorbachev's policies made this kind of vigorous grass-roots activism possible. Leaders of the nationalist movements in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania have been diligently testing the waters of glasnost, seeing how far they could venture. Sensing no crackdown, they've moved ahead.
Gorbachev's dilemma is where to draw the line between allowable political expression and a threat to public order and Communist Party authority. He quickly drew that line in Armenia when nationalistic demonstrations there grew too boisterous.
Americans and other Westerners looking on have their own dilemma: reconciling an instinctive desire to see the Baltic peoples and others attain a degree of independence with the hope that Gorbachev will succeed in remaking the Soviet system. If the former goes too far, the latter, difficult under the best of circumstances, may never happen. Few things are more likely to spark a conservative backlash against even a strengthened Gorbachev than the perception of cracks in the Soviet Union.
To some, those cracks might have been visible last weekend as the Popular Front of Latvia held its first congress. Delegates called for economic autonomy, a veto over the Kremlin's mandates, and an end to atheist education. A week earlier, the Estonian Popular Front took some similar stands.
This sounds like ``restructuring'' of a radical kind. But a few caveats are in order. In Estonia, the Communist Party clearly hopes to co-opt the Popular Front, giving it a voice in planning and adopting some of its positions - such as limiting Russian immigration to the republic - but withholding real power. Party members are active in the front. In the other Baltic states, the party and the popular movements are more adversarial.
Events in the Baltics have deep roots. These small but assertive countries have never been willing members of the Soviet Union. Their annexation in 1940 by Stalin, after a deal with Hitler, has become a rallying point of the current activism. Their relatively vibrant economies are the envy of other Soviet republics. And their cultural orientation is more West than East.
That combination of economic and cultural liveliness may be why Gorbachev - always open to a socialism that works - is willing to let political experimentation there proceed. The boundary of his tolerance - and that of communist leaders throughout the East bloc - is Communist Party dominance. The Baltics are venturing to the edge.
The same process of testing is seen in Poland. Nationalist feelings play a role there, too, as they clearly do in communist but stridently independent Yugoslavia, where ethnic tensions threaten to rip Tito's federation apart.
Hard-liners in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere may try to bolster the old ways and preempt the process of testing communist authority. But the forces of history, experience, and pragmatism behind that process are likely to give it a very long life.