KREMLIN officials are finding it relatively easy to accept formation of a Solidarity-led government in Poland. But Soviet reaction to the Baltic republics' drive for independence is another matter. It is a sign of how far events have gone in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia that activists on Soviet territory are taking lessons from Solidarity and no longer seem afraid of Moscow's bluster.
The Kremlin's willingness to deal with Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki's Solidarity-led government in Warsaw was signaled by no less than Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov.
In a phrase reminiscent of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's evaluation of Mr. Gorbachev in 1984, shortly before he took power, the Soviet KGB chief said he liked Mr. Mazowiecki and called him ``a solid man.'' Mr. Kryuchkov on Aug. 26 was the first leading Soviet official to meet Mazowiecki.
Gorbachev has loosened Moscow's limits on what is acceptable for its East-bloc allies, stressing that each has the right to find its own path to socialism based on its history and culture.
When it comes to what's acceptable from nationalist movements within their own borders, however, the Soviets are trying to tighten limits.
Last week's 50th anniversary of the German-Soviet agreement that led to annexation of the Baltics sparked massive demonstrations in Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, and calls for outright independence from Moscow. A Lithuanian government commission called the Soviet annexation of Lithuania an ``international crime.''
The Soviet Communist Party Central Committee, in a sharply worded statement Saturday, warned that separatists were leading the Baltic republics into an abyss. Since Gorbachev is on vacation, there was speculation that the statement was engineered by conservatives in the Soviet president's absence. But the Soviet Foreign Ministry disclosed this week that Gorbachev had personally approved the tough wording.
If the Baltic nationalists ``managed to attain their goals, the consequences could be catastrophic for their peoples,'' the statement said. On Monday, Lithuanian activists said Gorbachev telephoned Lithuanian Communist Party Chief Algirdas Brazauskas to say the republic had gone too far.
The Latvian Communist Party fell in behind the Central Committee, and the Lithuanian government rejected the commission report on the 1940 annexation of the republic.
Baltic activists generally reacted calmly, but acknowledged the Kremlin's stand may slow them down. Some expressed indignation over the harshness of the Central Committee statement. For many of them, the possible use of force by Moscow is no longer a viable threat.
Vytautis Landsbergis, head of the Lithuanian movement Sajudis, said the statement ``will make some problems for us, but I don't think they'll crush us completely. I don't think they're madmen.''
Ironically, some Baltic activists no longer regard the threat of force as credible because of the Polish experience in 1981, when Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law.
An Estonian Communist Party official, Deputy Propaganda Chief Peter Sookruus, said, ``Poland finally faced bigger problems than it had originally. In that sense, Poland served as an example.''