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Estonia Takes Quiet Steps Toward Independence

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ESTONIA will not declare independence - it will simply achieve it. That was the message from Estonians of various political groupings last weekend as the republic went to the polls to elect a new parliament (Supreme Soviet).

As reports circulated that troops were maneuvering in the sister Baltic republic of Lithuania, Estonians were quietly assuring themselves that their own route to independence might in the end be less fraught with peril than that of the Lithuanians.

The Estonian plan is to negotiate an independence agreement with Moscow that would remove Soviet troops from Estonian soil and hand full control of the republic's affairs, including the economy, to local control. On Sunday evening, senior Estonian leaders headed for Moscow at the request of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for discussions.

Estonian sentiment in favor of full independence has gained intensity - fanned by the formation of a grass-roots alternative parliament called the Congress of Estonia (See story, Page 3). The new grass-roots parliament does not wield any real power, but carries tremendous moral force as an expression of the will of the Estonia's native population.

The relationship between the Congress, the newly elected Supreme Soviet, and the crumbling Communist Party are changing the political landscape of this tiny republic of 1.5 million. The balance of forces in the new Supreme Soviet, and the makeup of the Estonian government it will elect, will play a pivotal role in determining Estonia's stance on independence.

Political figures once considered on the radical fringe - such as Tunne Kelam, the Estonian National Independence Party leader, and Trivimi Velliste, leader of the Estonian Historical Preservation Society - are now key players as leaders in the Congress.

Estonia's current Communist leaders want to include Mr. Kelam and Mr. Velliste in the team that will negotiate independence with Moscow.

But Congress leaders regard themselves as the legitimate representatives of the Estonian people and plan to hold their own negotiations with the new Estonian Supreme Soviet as a vehicle for establishing contacts with the Kremlin. People like Prime Minister Indrek Toome and Arnold Ruutel, the popular Estonian President, can also play a useful role ``initially'' in negotiating with Moscow, says Velliste.


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