NATIONALISTIC unrest continues to sweep over the Soviet Union and appears likely to increase in coming months, despite Moscow's efforts, including a proposal last week that may allow the 15 Soviet republics more economic freedom. Newly aroused Azerbaijanis plan to strike next month if Moscow doesn't meet demands for political autonomy. Ukrainians, spurred by the Donbass coal strikes, plan to protest Sept. 2 over new election laws giving the Communist Party 25 percent of seats in local governing councils.
Yet the biggest emerging story may be in the Baltic republics. Ethnic passions and separatist politics in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, cultivated over decades, are at a new high and may get higher. This week marks the 50th anniversary of the deeply-hated secret Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact by which the USSR annexed the Baltics in 1939. Increasingly active Popular Fronts in those republics are using the occasion for mass demonstrations and calls for political and cultural autonomy.
It seems there is a ``domino theory'' after all - except it's not communism knocking down Southeast Asian countries, but democratic impulses catching on in the Soviet sphere.
What's different about the Baltics is how long people there have been at the independence game and how serious they are as a result. The spirit of change in the Baltics today is both more pragmatic, and more ebullient even than in Poland, where most people are preoccupied with economic survival. The Baltic peoples know what they want - free markets, official ethnic languages, local control, to name a few - and they feel they can get them. Symbolic change won't be enough.
The situation shapes up as a case study. The Baltics must find their way between being a model of perestroika that Gorbachev can use as an example for Soviet economic reform - and an ever-increasing push for national autonomy and self-rule. The Baltics would like to be mini-Finlands.
Both scenarios are spinning out. Gorbachev has given the Baltics unprecedented free market status beginning in January; there's also been a first round of admittance in Moscow to the illegal pact signed by Molotov and von Ribbentrop 50 years ago.
At the same time, new Estonian laws limit the right of newly-arrived ethnic Russians to vote. In Lithuania, the popular front Sajudis petitions for Soviet troop withdrawals. In Latvia, young people are creating family farms - a challenge to Soviet collectives.
The real challenge in the next months, however, will be for the Baltics to avoid extremism. Troop withdrawals and complete independence are romantic ideas, but unrealistic at the moment.
Instead, the republics can focus on freedoms that count for now: Press, freer trade, freer travel, freedom to make environmental decisions, teaching the truth about history, official languages, more religious freedom.
These are the particulars that, added up, will create the conditions for freedom and independence the Baltics surely deserve.