Estonia Takes Quiet Steps Toward Independence

ESTONIA will not declare independence - it will simply achieve it. That was the message from Estonians of various political groupings last weekend as the republic went to the polls to elect a new parliament (Supreme Soviet).

As reports circulated that troops were maneuvering in the sister Baltic republic of Lithuania, Estonians were quietly assuring themselves that their own route to independence might in the end be less fraught with peril than that of the Lithuanians.

The Estonian plan is to negotiate an independence agreement with Moscow that would remove Soviet troops from Estonian soil and hand full control of the republic's affairs, including the economy, to local control. On Sunday evening, senior Estonian leaders headed for Moscow at the request of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for discussions.

Estonian sentiment in favor of full independence has gained intensity - fanned by the formation of a grass-roots alternative parliament called the Congress of Estonia (See story, Page 3). The new grass-roots parliament does not wield any real power, but carries tremendous moral force as an expression of the will of the Estonia's native population.

The relationship between the Congress, the newly elected Supreme Soviet, and the crumbling Communist Party are changing the political landscape of this tiny republic of 1.5 million. The balance of forces in the new Supreme Soviet, and the makeup of the Estonian government it will elect, will play a pivotal role in determining Estonia's stance on independence.

Political figures once considered on the radical fringe - such as Tunne Kelam, the Estonian National Independence Party leader, and Trivimi Velliste, leader of the Estonian Historical Preservation Society - are now key players as leaders in the Congress.

Estonia's current Communist leaders want to include Mr. Kelam and Mr. Velliste in the team that will negotiate independence with Moscow.

But Congress leaders regard themselves as the legitimate representatives of the Estonian people and plan to hold their own negotiations with the new Estonian Supreme Soviet as a vehicle for establishing contacts with the Kremlin. People like Prime Minister Indrek Toome and Arnold Ruutel, the popular Estonian President, can also play a useful role ``initially'' in negotiating with Moscow, says Velliste.

Early returns on Monday from Russian-dominated areas showed the Popular Front doing relatively well. In preliminary results for 45 of the 105 seats, the Popular Front won 19. Nine went to the Communist Party and the Free Estonia coalition, a new group formed by several top Estonian Communist Party leaders in an apparent effort to distance themselves from the party.

The Communist Party itself is crumbling, its leaders admit. After the party's congress on March 23, its 100,000 members will regroup - some in a small Communist Party loyal to Moscow, some in a small independent Communist Party, and the rest in other parties.

``I'm sure that a fairly large number will, for a while at least, not belong to any party,'' Prime Minister Toome, a founder of Free Estonia, said in an interview. ``They will want to look around and see what's happening, and define themselves. Today, no one can talk seriously about new political parties. We have personalities and their fans.''

Though Congress leaders do not recognize the Supreme Soviet as a legitimate body, they still are trying to use it as a tool for achieving their aims. Thus, 84 members of the Congress are also running for the Supreme Soviet - as a sort of Trojan Horse that will, when the time comes, introduce a motion to disband the Supreme Soviet. The Congress also hopes to make its policies into Supreme Soviet policies via its candidates.

Congress leaders acknowledge the paradox of their approach, but say they need to be pragmatic.

``When you're driving in a car, you must take all the instruments of repair with you along the way,'' says Estonian writer Lennart Meri. ``But we know where we are going. We are restoring the independence of a small nation that has been occupied.''

The election of the Congress of Estonia put the Estonian Popular Front in a tough position. At first, the front opposed it, saying it would divide pro-independence forces. But as the drive to register Estonian citizens picked up momentum, many Popular Front leaders joined the bandwagon and ran for the Congress as well.

``The Congress's main effect has been to radicalize Estonia's Communist leadership,'' says a longtime Western observer of Estonian politics. ``But the people must let those experienced in the Kremlin handle negotiations.''

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