The Soviet Union, in recognition of the resurgent nationalism in its Baltic republics, gave official status Friday to the flags that Latvia and Lithuania flew as independent countries but which have been outlawed for nearly 50 years.
The parliaments of Latvia and Lithuania, both Soviet republics now, also voted to give official status to their national languages, replacing Russian, in far-reaching moves that sought to redeem President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s pledge of a devolution of political power.
In Riga, the Latvian capital, more than 150,000 people turned out when the old maroon-and-white flag of independent Latvia was unfurled at an emotional rally in a park of the city’s outskirts.
In Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, an estimated 100,000 people took part in citywide processions leading to Gediminias Tower on the city’s main square where the yellow, green and red flag of independent Lithuania flew for the first time since 1940.
“The emotion was enough to stop your heart,” a senior Lithuanian government official, a veteran Communist Party member, said by telephone after the rally in Vilnius.
“To tell the truth, I had trouble seeing the flag because of the tears in my eyes. It was a moment I never dared think I would live to see.”
Estonia, the third Soviet Baltic republic, has already reinstated the flag, a white, blue and black tricolor, from its brief period of independence between the two world wars and had earlier made Estonian the government’s working language.
With the establishment last weekend of the Popular Front for Perestroika in Estonia and similar congresses planned for Latvia and then Lithuania, the Communist Party will have taken its first substantial steps toward sharing political power.
More Members Than Party
In each of the Baltic republics, the local popular front now has a membership far exceeding that of the Communist Party, many of whose members also belong to the front but which finds itself in a diminished position nonetheless.
“We are learning to live with political pluralism,” a Lithuanian editor said by telephone from Vilnius as the crowd waving the flags of independent Lithuania swelled into a veritable sea of humanity outside his offices. “This is bringing a national rebirth (for Lithuania). The party itself never got this many people into the street.”
Lithuania also authorized the “more extensive use of national symbols,” the official news agency Tass reported from Vilnius, saying that the decision was taken precisely because of their “emotional impact” and their place in the republic’s “historical-cultural heritage,” which was acknowledged officially for the first time in decades.
The series of moves appears to reflect, in fact, a top-level Kremlin decision to grant the three Baltic republics greater political autonomy in recognition of their forced incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1940 under an agreement between Nazi Germany and Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator.
But they also give Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, each a “go-ahead” region anxious to break out of the mold of Stalinist politics and economics, the leverage they need to take Gorbachev’s reforms much further than can be attempted so far elsewhere in the country.
Among the speakers at the Riga rally was Anatoly V. Gorbunov, 46, the new Latvian president, who promised accelerated reforms, based on extensive and close consultation with Latvia’s people.
Elected only three days ago, Gorbunov succeeded Jan Vagris, the new first secretary of the Latvian Communist Party, and he promised to become one of the first of the “political presidents” of the republican parliaments where the top jobs, and most of the other functions, have been largely ceremonial for years.
Gorbunov will probably get his real mandate not from the party’s Central Committee but from the founding congress this weekend of Latvia’s new Popular Front for Perestroika. Perestroika, which means restructuring, is the word used to describe Gorbachev’s reform program.
“The government intends to adopt vitally important decisions only after a broad popular discussion of them that takes into account the interests of all segments of the population,” he declared, breaking with the party-knows-best philosophy that has especially angered the residents of the Baltic republics.
On Friday, Gorbunov endorsed not only the basic reform tenets of the Popular Front, described by the official Soviet news agency Tass as the republic’s “democratic movement,” but also several of its nationalistic elements, including an end to central government policies that transfer Latvians to jobs outside the republic and bring non-Latvians in.