Soviets question their country's policy of dealing with nationalities. Baltic protests appear to open new avenues for public debate
The official Soviet news media appear to have started posing questions about the country's nationalities policy, in the wake of last Sunday's demonstrations in the three Soviet Baltic capitals. That could mean a major success for one of the implicit goals of the actions - to open up debate on Russification, national rights, and the expansionist foreign policy under Joseph Stalin that brought the Baltic states under Soviet rule in 1940.
The Baltic demonstrations in memory of victims of the 1939 German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, the actions by Crimean Tatars in Moscow, and the rioting in the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan earlier this year have been officially denounced, say Western sources who monitor Soviet media, but with comments that such phenomena also showed that ``not everything is well in relations among the nations of the Soviet Union.''
Despite the arrests and manhandling of Latvian activists Sunday, there are signals that Soviet authorities won't resort to harsh repression after public gatherings. An article in one Moscow paper said it was time to learn to live with and understand people who oppose the Soviet system, reports a close follower of the Soviet press.
Soviet Latvian television, which is broadcast within the borders of the republic, gave ``fairly objective'' coverage of the demonstration and broadcast interviews with citizens complaining about police behavior, according to telephone reports received here from Latvia. An official commentator also reportedly criticized the police.
If accurately described, the Riga television coverage of Sunday's events would be unprecedented for the state-controlled Soviet media.
Official criticism of police behavior toward unofficial or dissident groups is almost unheard of, though there have been some press articles criticizing the police and even the KGB (the secret police) for corruption and inefficiency in dealing with ordinary crime.
Between 500 and 1,000 people demonstrated in Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, and some 2,000 people gathered in Tallinn, the Estonian capital. But based on available information, much of it relayed by phone to Stockholm, the most dramatic events took place in Latvia, which had already experienced a mass demonstration on June 14.
The size of the Latvian demonstration, with 7,000 or more participants, was confirmed by a traveler who arrived from Riga in Stockholm on Tuesday. The man, who was also present at the June 14 demonstration in memory of victims of Stalin's deportations, said it appeared twice as large as that demonstration.
``People are much, much more sure of themselves now,'' he said, explaining the larger turnout. He said Latvians were emboldened by the lack of serious consequences for those who marched in June.
Rolands Silaraups, who led the June 14 demonstration in Riga and was subsequently pressured into emigrating to the West, said Helsinki '86, the working-class human rights group behind Sunday's Riga events, would keep up the pressure on the Soviet authorities as long as it is able.
Mr. Silaraups declined to give details in advance about further mass demonstration plans, but observers say it would be impossible for the group to ignore Latvia's independence day, Nov. 18. Latvians who have left the country at various times during the post-war period have reported that informal activities have almost always occured on or around that date for many years. Actions on Nov. 18, or on the national days of independence in Estonia and Lithuania, both in February, would be an overt challenge to Soviet rule.