The Parliament of the Soviet Baltic republic of Estonia voted Wednesday to proclaim Estonian "sovereignty" within the Soviet Union and to give itself the right to veto national legislation before it goes into effect in the republic.
The Estonian "declaration of sovereignty," approved 258-1 with five abstentions, was an unprecedented assertion of political independence from Moscow by one of the Soviet Union's 15 constituent republics, and it came with the full backing of the Estonian Communist Party and the republic's government.
In hours of serious debate, broadcast live on Estonian television and radio, the deputies to the Estonian Supreme Soviet, the republic's Parliament, stressed that their concept of "sovereignty" for Estonia is full autonomy for the republic within the Soviet Union. They said they are willing to concede the conduct of foreign relations and national defense to Moscow but little else.
The deputies voted 254-7 to revise Estonia's constitution so that Parliament has the right to refuse to adopt Soviet laws regarded as not in Estonia's interest. Constitutional guarantees of human rights were strengthened, environmental protection was increased and legal status was given to mass political movements, such as the new Popular Front of Estonia.
The lawmakers then voted unanimously to seek changes in proposed amendments to the Soviet Union's constitution on grounds that they are undemocratic and would unfairly curtail the rights of the country's republics. And they called for negotiations on a "treaty of union" ensuring the rights of Estonia and other republics and limiting the powers of the Soviet Union's central government.
"The ultimate aim is to guarantee the supremacy of the Estonian constitution," Arno Almann, a leading member of the Estonian Parliament, told deputies at a rare emergency session. It was originally convened to voice Estonia's strong objections to the proposed constitutional amendments before they are considered by the national Parliament (Supreme Soviet) on Nov. 29.
Taken together, however, the Estonian resolutions demanded in the firmest terms and at the highest level yet that the Kremlin recognize the right of Estonians--and implicitly other non-Russian minorities who have been incorporated into the Soviet Union--to be the masters of their own land.
A leading reformer, Indrek K. Toome, who had been the Estonian Communist Party's secretary for ideology, was elected unanimously as the republic's premier. He replaces an unpopular official widely viewed as opposing the rapid political liberalization of Estonia.
Drafted by leaders of the Estonian Communist Party and the republic's government, the resolutions reflect the resurgent nationalism of the three Baltic republics--Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania--and pose a considerable challenge to the Soviet leadership. The Kremlin is in a quandary on how to respond to demands for autonomy, decentralization and national rights as it pursues a program of broader political, economic and social reforms.
"Our deputies have shown their unity, their will to see Estonia as a sovereign and equal member within the Soviet Union," Vaino Valjas, the dynamic new first secretary of the Estonian Communist Party, said in a short speech after the vote. "The future of this country is in the hands of all of us."
Valjas urged Estonians to channel their considerable political energies into preparing for a special national party conference in mid-1989 that will review the country's complex ethnic relations, including the position of national republics, such as Estonia.
Estonia's need to make its own laws, to manage its own economy, to look after its own resources and to provide for its own small population, just 1.6 million people, resulted from what the delegates criticized as Moscow's ruinous policies there. These policies date from 1940 when the Baltic republics were forcefully incorporated into the Soviet Union in a deal between Adolf Hitler, the leader of Nazi Germany, and Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator.
'Only Way Out'
"The Estonian people see economic self-management as the only way out of our current crisis," Arnold Ruutel, the republic's president, said as he opened the emergency session in Tallinn, the Estonian capital. "This will not be possible unless our political system is decentralized."
Similar action may follow in Latvia, whose Parliament is scheduled to meet next Tuesday, and possibly in Lithuania and Armenia, where strong objections have been voiced to the proposed constitutional amendments that have been put forward as part of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's broad reform program.
More than 2.6 million people in the three Baltic republics have signed petitions opposing the constitutional changes, according to officials of the Popular Front of Estonia. They describe the new legislation as "a showdown issue" for the 7.8 million people in the Baltic region.
Gorbachev, speaking to a party conference in the central Russian city of Orel on Tuesday, had warned against extremism on ethnic questions. "We find political extremism of a nationalist character especially unacceptable," he said, contending that this undermines support for the country's broader reforms, known as perestroika, or restructuring.
"We should reject every attempt to impose on us such solutions of existing problems that run counter to our internationalist ideology or the principles of socialism," he said, indicating no intention of modifying the proposed legislation to meet the critics' objections.
While Gorbachev's goals win wide endorsement, the proposed amendments to the constitution and a new electoral law are viewed by many as shifting important powers from the republics to the central government rather than increasing the limited autonomy the republics now have.
Gorbachev said, however, that the primary aim of the proposed constitutional changes is to make the central government organs more democratic; relations between the union and its constituent republics would be reviewed later, he said.
The measures have also encountered increasing criticism, particularly from liberal members of the Soviet intelligentsia who are normally among Gorbachev's strongest backers, on grounds that they concentrate too much power in the hands of the Communist Party general secretary, now Gorbachev, and fail to fulfill many of his promises of greater democracy.
The legislation is due to be debated by the Supreme Soviet on Nov. 29 before its adoption as part of Gorbachev's reform program.