THE independence vote in Latvia and Estonia on Sunday leaves no doubt - as if there were much to begin with - that the Baltic republics want sovereignty. A referendum was one of Mikhail Gorbachev's own requirements for independence. Now it has taken place. About 73 percent of the Latvian voters want out; in Estonia the number is 78 percent. Remarkably, a high percentage of ethnic Russians in both states voted for what is essentially secession as well. Last month, Lithuania had a similar vote.
In international forums and in the general political discourse in both East and West, the verdict on the Baltics is now compellingly clear.
The bid by Mr. Gorbachev to intimidate the Balts, back during the dark days of January when Soviet black beret troops shot and killed Lithuanians in the street, has not worked. The Baltic people stood firm. Nor did the ploy of occupying Vilnius while the West's attention was focused on the start of the Persian Gulf war succeed. To its credit, the Western press did not let Gorbachev get away with the action. The Soviet leader was also unprepared for the internal commotion over the Baltics made by rival B oris Yeltsin.
Many Latvians and Estonians brought their children to voting sites - to give future generations a taste of what independence means.
Overall, Sunday's vote increases the independence momentum not only in the Baltics, but throughout the Soviet empire. But the Baltics may be the critical test case. The Balts want autonomy, and this pressure will continue to build. March 11 is the first anniversary of the parliamentary vote declaring Lithuania independent. The question is, Will the separation be amicable or messy?
Giving up the strategic Baltics will not be easy or popular. Yet Gorbachev must find a way to slowly give the Balts political autonomy - while also securing Soviet bases, flyovers, and ports in the region. This is possible to achieve. The Balts will allow it.
The other path - repression - spells disaster.