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Estonia's Struggle to Shake Off the Soviet Past

WATCH Estonia. Developments in this small, newly liberated Baltic country may well be the litmus test for the vast area to the east now named Russia.

Estonia is the microcosm of the difficulties and contradictions inherent in the former Soviet Union's transition to democracy and a free-market economy. If these problems cannot be solved in this little Baltic country, with its tradition of prewar democracy and historic ties to the West, what hope do we have to cure the aftermath of communism in Russia?

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Estonia's importance as a testing ground for the transformation of a post-Soviet society into a viable democracy have dramatically increased. Can this transformation succeed? What can the West do to help?

Estonian experience shows that communism is not just a Russian phenomenon. Though introduced by Russians to Estonia, its concepts were embraced by tens of thousands of locals who then became grist for its oppressive, monopolistic system.

Today's complex political problems result, in large part, from the extent to which Estonian society became Sovietized during 50 years of occupation.

Since last August, Estonia has been nominally independent. During the abortive Moscow coup, a national consensus was reached between the ruling reform communists and the democratic opposition. This led to the drafting of a new constitution and provided for elections to the National Assembly which would replace the Supreme Soviet, the current parliament, a vestige of Soviet rule in Estonia.

Such a solution was strongly supported by the Congress of Estonia, the democratic movement which has fought for an open Western-style society and a return to the pre-World War II republic.

At the end of January, a new transitional government was formed. It had a specific assignment: leading the country to the election of a constitutional parliament and tackling the economic crisis. Fledgling political parties started preparing to function in a normal democratic system, something so mundane in the West, but so exciting in a post-Soviet society. Even the hard winter with its economic crisis, fuel shortages, cold apartments, and lack of food, was not able to squelch the enthusiasm.

But April truly was the cruelest month. Posing as patriots and free marketeers while taking advantage of established positions, communist apparatchiks have succeeded in grabbing up national property and riches under the guise of privatization. Even the KGB has performed a soft landing into the new situation by moving into banking and joint ventures.

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NOW the fragile cooperation between various political forces in Estonia has been eroded. While the Congress of Estonia gave its unqualified blessing to the draft of the new democratic constitution, the Supreme Soviet tossed it back and launched a series of revisions designed to serve the interests of the former nomenklatura.

The angriest reaction was aimed at the article restricting temporarily the access of former communist functionaries to high elected office. And a few weeks ago, the Supreme Soviet took the right to vote from tens of thousands of Estonian citizens living in the West, already deprived of their homeland by Soviet conquest.

Just a few days ago, the Supreme Soviet began tinkering with the implementing legislation for the constitution, opening the vote to non-citizens and removing the clause which specified that elections must be held right after the ratification of the constitution. In addition, all Estonian SSR laws will be in effect until they are individually nullified, even after the new constitution is in force.

These moves have been orchestrated by an unholy alliance of old-line government bureaucrats, nomenklatura, reform communists, and reactionary Russians hostile to Estonian independence. This alliance seeks to postpone democratic elections indefinitely.

Estonia's future is hanging by a thread. But whether Estonia becomes truly free or whether it ends up as a new satellite of Russia has international significance. Russia is in turmoil - the results there are unpredictable.

The West has every interest in seeing genuine democracy established first in the small fringe nation states which have some democratic traditions and are more easily manageable. Truly free and democratic Baltic States can foster the democratization of Russia. And on this point, Estonian and Western interests converge. For the transition to succeed in Estonia, a deeper Western understanding of the complications of desovietization is needed.

In order to secure independence and democracy, the under-financed and struggling Baltic democratic forces deserve more than moral support from their Western counterparts.

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