A burgeoning political movement in Soviet Estonia on Sunday adopted a radical program demanding constitutional guarantees for private property, an end to compulsory military service and the punishment of those responsible for Stalinist crimes.
The two-day congress of the Estonian Popular Front was the first such gathering in recent Soviet history to be officially sanctioned by the Communist authorities. It could set a precedent for the official recognition of independent mass movements elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
The idea of launching such a movement in line with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s reform drive was first discussed in a television program here last spring. Since then, the movement has held mass rallies that drew as many as 300,000 people, the largest political gatherings ever seen in this tiny Baltic republic of 1.5 million people.
Avoids Independence Call
The weekend congress stopped well short of calling for Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union or for an end to Communist rule. But in some respects, the final congress program goes further than the platform adopted by the independent Solidarity union movement in Poland in 1980-81 or by Czechoslovak reformers in 1968.
Popular Front leaders announced plans to field independent candidates in next year’s elections for new national and Estonian legislatures, something never attempted by Solidarity in Poland. Judging by the present distribution of political forces in Estonia, the Popular Front candidates would likely defeat official candidates in many areas if the elections are held freely.
Senior Estonian Communist officials listened carefully to the congress debates, which were held in the Tallinn town hall and broadcast live on Estonian radio. They heard demands for an end to the collectivization of agriculture and a denunciation of the forcible integration of the Baltic nations into the Soviet Union in 1940.
The weekend’s proceedings appeared to have received at least tacit endorsement from Gorbachev, who held an 80-minute meeting with Estonian Communist Party chief Vaino Valjas in Moscow last Wednesday. In recent public appearances, the Soviet leader has called for political power to be transferred to representative bodies in order to end decades of social inertia and stagnation.
At a press conference after the closing ceremony of the congress, Valjas said he could not agree to some of the proposals made by the Popular Front, but he refused to be more specific. He added, however, that it would be impossible to implement Gorbachev’s reform drive “unless people are prepared to follow us.”
“At the present time, we may be wanting to do more than we are able,” he told reporters, adding that it is necessary to guard against “fantasies.”
The Kremlin appears to be gambling that, by allowing movements like the Estonian Popular Front to organize under official auspices, it can deprive the more extreme pro-independence groups here of mass support. Communist Party members made up 22% of the 3,071 delegates to the congress, including most of its new leadership.
But although the Popular Front leaders succeeded in moderating the demands of their most radical followers, an undercurrent of national reawakening could be felt throughout the proceedings. Standing ovations greeted speakers who denounced the 1939 Berlin-Moscow pact that led the next year to the partition of Poland and the absorption of the Baltic states--Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania--into the Soviet Union.
‘We Can Never Be Suppressed’
Chants of bravo erupted in the huge semicircular auditorium when a bearded Estonian artist, Heinz Valk, declared that “what happened in 1940 should be considered a violation of a small, defenseless country. . . . We may be killed, but we can never be suppressed.”
Outside the conference hall, stalls were set up to sell badges decorated with the blue, black, and white tricolor of prewar independent Estonia for five rubles ($8) apiece.
Rapturous applause also greeted a call by the chairman of a collective farm, Tenno Teets, for the reinstatement of private agriculture. Teets denounced a Communist Party plan to rent land to private farmers, saying that his ancestors had already paid for their farms during prewar national independence.
The Soviet leadership has traditionally been more tolerant of political experiments in the small, westward-looking Baltic republics than in the rest of the Soviet Union, and popular movement congresses will take place in the neighboring republics of Latvia and Lithuania later this month.
Representatives of popular movements from the Soviet Russian and Ukrainian republics told the weekend meeting that their attempts to organize along similar lines had resulted in official harassment and repression.