Anti-Military Sentiment Takes Hold. ESTONIA
ANTI-MILITARY feeling in the Baltics is growing fast, with the Estonian government adding its voice to calls for alternative service and for Estonian conscripts to serve out their time in units stationed within the republic. The Estonian call was made in a letter sent earlier this month to Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov and the Soviet Parliament.
In the letter, the republic's president, Arnold Ryutel, and Prime Minister Indrek Toome also proposed substantially increasing the number of ethnic Estonians serving in two sensitive military units in the republic - the internal troops, used by the Soviet Interior Ministry in the event of major public disturbances, and the border troops, which are controlled by the Soviet State Security Committee (KGB).
The Estonian proposal comes after another Baltic republic, Lithuania, published in late February a draft constitution that includes a call for the re-creation of Lithuanian units of the Soviet Army. Pressure on the armed forces is also building up along parts of the Soviet periphery - notably Georgia, where troops recently killed 20 demonstrators, and Kazakhstan, where activists have called for the closure of military installations involved in the production of nuclear weapons.
A number of reasons have combined to make the military unpopular in the Baltics. The demand for greater autonomy by Baltic governments and unofficial organizations has intensified irritation with the extensive military presence in the three republics. Activists claim that the military are aggravating already serious environmental problems, and that they behave like a state within a state.
Revulsion at the April 9 killings of nationalist demonstrators in Georgia has intensified antimilitary feeling. So have allegations that conscripts of Baltic origin have been singled out for especially brutal hazing.
The two Estonian leaders wrote their letter to Moscow a few days after the Georgia deaths. The letter proposed that internal forces stationed in Tallinn should be composed of at least 50 to 60 percent ethnic Estonians.
Estonian state television showed amateur video film of the military attacking demonstrators at a time when the official news media in Moscow was downplaying the events. Georgian Party Chief Givi Gumbaridze admitted this week that troops in his province used toxic gas against Georgian demonstrators. Privately some Estonians are saying that the republic's proposal would help reduce the risk of a Georgia-style incident happening in their republic.
Thirty to 40 percent of KGB border troops stationed in the republic should be ethnic Estonians, Mr. Ryuttel and Mr. Toome wrote, and troops should be answerable to republic authorities for anything connected with protection of the environment.
So far, Estonian officials say, they have received no reply, although an article in the Communist Party daily Pravda on April 19 criticized the prevailing attitude toward the armed forces in the Baltic republics. (Baltic officials are for their part very unhappy with the coverage given events in their republics by the official Moscow media.)
But the call for alternative service and for Estonians to serve their time in Estonia has been echoed by a group of local Communist Party first secretaries in a recently published draft outline of a new program for the Estonian Communist Party.
Antimilitary feeling surfaced openly in Estonia last year, around the time of the formation of the Popular Front in October. Speaking at the founding conference, one delegate, Rein Nurk, said sarcastically that Estonians in his area were so rich that ``each collective farm has its own missile base.'' We are superbly defended, he added, ``though we don't always understand from what.''
The Georgia killings heightened the antimilitary mood. ``The terrible thing was that the soldiers (in Georgia) seemed to be enjoying what they were doing,'' said an Estonian government official, who had seen the video film of troops attacking demonstrators. ``This has to reflect on military training these days.''
Shortly after the Georgian demonstrations, military maneuvers in the three Baltic republics added to an already tense situation. A military convoy consisting of seven armored vehicles plus support equipment trundled across Estonia before turning south into the Leningrad military district.
Estonian traffic police tried three times to stop the convoy, a report in the Communist Party's Estonian language newspaper Rahva Haal said. First they tried to wave it down; then they called on it to stop using a loudspeaker. When these efforts failed they blocked the road with a police car. The colonel commanding the convoy, who refused identify himself told the traffic police to move, or he would run their car over. The police moved: They explained to Rahva Haal journalist Harri Treial that the car was after all a new one.
Some Estonian observers suspect that the convoy, which had entered the republic without either asking approval or giving advance notice, may have been intended as a display of strength - an effort to intimidate some of the more strident antimilitary activists in the Baltics.
Instead the military seems to have shot itself in the foot.
Activists had already been critical of the Leningrad military district: A young Lithuanian soldier serving in the region, Arturas Sakalauskas, went berserk in February 1987, killing eight soldiers, reportedly after repeated and sadistic hazing. He is currently awaiting trial. A program on the case shown on Estonian TV last month has caused a wave of sympathy for his case in the republic. Communist youth organizations and factory workers have petitioned for his acquittal.