Soviet satellites stirring

Sun News Services

COULD PERESTROIKA--Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of reconstruction--signal the fall of the Soviet Empire?

Already the Baltic republics of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are making bold attempts to wrest control from Moscow.

The Gorbachev gospel of markets and experimentation at home, pragmatism and coexistence abroad, has done nothing to discourage ferment in Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia. Observers see potential for further upheavals in Czechoslovakia, Romania and possibly East Germany.

And the Armenians have stirred ethnic awareness throughout the polyglot Soviet Union in their feud with neighboring Azerbaijan.

Gorbachev has proved himself adept at gaining personal power--after last week's forced realignment of the Politburo, he bestrides the Kremlin with authority comparable to Stalin's in 1929, before the great purge.

But even when the presidency is added to his impressive list of titles next year, he is unlikely to be strong enough to halt the erosion of Moscow's authority over its satellites.

Nor may he wish to stop it. Even before he took over in Moscow in 1985 and started talking of "a common European house" from Russia to the Atlantic, intellectuals in Budapest and Paris and Vienna had been exploring their common European heritage.

A lively discussion about "Mittleleuropa"--a vanished prewar continent of German cultural influence anchored in Berlin, Krakow, Prague and Vienna--continues to animate seminars, scholarly magazines and, on the eastern side of Europe's ideological divide, numerous underground publications.

If Spain and Portugal could become stable democracies, people on both sides of the divide sometimes ask, why cannot the nations of Eastern Europe?

This week Pope John Paul entered the fray, telling the European Parliament in Strasbourg that the process of integration should not stop with the European Community, but extend from the Atlantic to the Urals, on the basis of a common Christian identity.

As one "who knows the aspirations of the Slavic peoples," he said, "my wish is that Europe, giving herself with sovereign power, free institutions, may one day enlarge the dimensions given to her by geography and even more by history."

So far, the boldest moves toward democracy have been taken by the three Baltic republics which have struggled to maintain their national identities since their annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940.

Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania have long complained that Soviet monopolization have ruined their economy and environment.

Now Latvians have created an independent political organization to demand sovereignty in governing their republic.

The group, calling itself the Latvian Popular Front and claiming a membership of over 100,000, stopped short of calling for secession from the Soviet Union.

But in a meeting attended and often applauded by Communist officials, the group advocated complete economic independence for Latvia, including the right to create its own currency, the right to establish independent relations with other countries, an end to the teaching of atheism in schools and the right to control migration and foreign travel.

Similar demands were made last week in Tallinn at inaugural conference of the Popular Front of Estonia and a similar conference is planned in Lithuania in two weeks.

Estonia's leaders hope to use their independence to demonstrate the effectiveness of Gorbachev's social and economic reforms.

With the blessing of the republic's Communist party, officials are planning to open trade offices abroad, enter joint ventures with western companies without Moscow approval and return to family farming.

"The Communist party of Estonia can be regarded as one of the front-rankers of the reconstruction drive. Estonia has been the initiator of many reforms," said Estonian party chief Vaijno Vyalyas

Vyalyas, a Gorbachev prot‚g‚, appears to have his blessing. But he and the Stonian activists leading the reform drive have been careful not to go too far.

"At the bottom of our hearts, all Estonians want secession," said Ulo Kaevats, head of the auditing commission of the People's Front, a grassroots organization pushing for reform. "But if we did put forward this question, we would have martial law, and we all know that very well."

The group, which formed in April and claims a membership of 60,000 in Estonia, approved a platform at its conference that, in effect, calls for Estonia to establish its autonomy from Moscow in all matters except defence and foreign policy.

Western European governments have long nourished deep sympathy for Eastern Europeans living under Communist rule.

But this feeling has often been overlaid by a guilty sense that little could be--or perhaps even should be--done to tinker with a division of the continent that has coincided with more than four decades of peace.

Now the faintest outlines of a possible new deal for Eastern Europe are becoming visible as Western diplomats strive to encourage Bonn's pervasive influence in East Germany while discouraging the kind of massive repression that befell Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

In its crudest form, the new deal would amount to Western Europe pumping investment into the mostly sickly economies of Eastern Europe if Moscow and the Eastern European leaders consented to grant freedom to their peoples.

Earlier this year, Carlo de Benedetti, the Italian financier, popularized this idea by calling for a Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe.

The second element of such a deal would involve cuts in conventional weapons, which are economically the most burdensome for NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

An agreement that led to a withdrawal of large numbers of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe could underpin earlier commitments to greater political freedom.

It would free up monies needed for economic renewal in the East, while it might permit Western governments to overhaul welfare and social security systems and justify reductions in West Germany's 490,000-member military establishment as the country's population shrinks.

"We are heading toward the erosion of the Soviet empire in every direction," one French diplomat declared. "Now our problem is to make sure the whole mess doesn't explode. We have to steer change."

It is a sign of the times that one of Western Europe's most outspoken anti-Communists--Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher--has staked out a position of wishing Gorbachev well.

At this point, she is offering political, not financial, capital.

"I had to decide whether I thought it was in the Western interest that he succeed, and I think it is," Thatcher said in an interview last month.

(article accompanied by cartoon of Mikhail Gorbachev holding globe focusing on member states of Soviet Union and neighbouring Scandinavian countries)

(text of October 15, 1988 Vancouver Sun article)