Backsliding in the Baltics

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV is waging a war of nerves - and guns - against the independent-minded Baltics. With the Soviet bear now battering down doors in Latvia, it appears Moscow has its sights set on repressing and controlling all three of the Baltic states. This is matched by a new crackdown on liberalism and glasnost. Press freedoms are waning. Seven key Gorbachev advisors, architects of perestroika, were ousted on Saturday.

Where is the West? In front of its TV sets watching SCUD missle attacks in the Mideast.

The question of Mr. Gorbachev's role in the shooting of 15 Lithuanians last week now seems ancient. Gorbachev denies any responsibility for the deaths, but this is hard to believe. In any event, he hasn't condemned the action. Meanwhile, Moscow is steamrolling ahead. Shadow Soviet ``governments'' in each republic are readying to take over.

Gorbachev is tone deaf to the key issue of ethnic nationalism. The Soviet leader could temporize with the Baltics, which still need Soviet oil, gas, trade, food, and, arguably, security. He could cut a deal based on mutual interests. Instead, he's forcing one based on blood. With Moldavia, the Ukraine, and Azerbaijan pulling away, things aren't going to get any easier.

Gorbachev's use of force in this truly historic instance may keep the empire together in the short term - but it may also prove the Kremlin's undoing. What republic will trust Moscow now?

Worse, the pain of this repression will be magnified for the Baltic peoples, who have been inching toward freedom. Previously, coercive authority was masked by an ideology and a cause. Communism was ``the air we breathed,'' said Vaclav Havel. But the upheavals of 1989 totally discredited communism. The mask has been ripped off - crude power is all that's left.

With populations in former Soviet satellites free, occupation becomes that much more intolerable for the Balts. Nor will methods of ``soft'' repression work.

The Soviet propaganda floated in Lithuania last week calling the legitimate government there ``fascist'' evoked from knowing citizens a horse laugh heard from Vilnius to Riga. Can anyone believe Baltic children will be taught Moscow's story in schools?

Liberal forces in the USSR need support. Boris Yeltsin is now a hero. The head of the Russian Republic is championing Baltic democracy - he flew to Estonia to sign a treaty to ask the UN to intervene in the Baltics.

That's certainly more than the West has done. President Bush has been preoccupied. If he's not careful, however, he'll find the new world order handed to him in 1989 is gone, and the Baltics with it. Breznev, anyone?

The White House must do more. Russian aggression should not stand.

Gorbachev's move to make Aleksandr A. Bessmertnykh, Soviet ambassador to Washington, his new foreign minister may be an olive branch to Bush. Let's see that it doesn't become a fig leaf.

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