Popular Force Meets Imperial Object : No Matter the Baltic Logic, Soviets Won't Give the Store Away

Alexander J. Motyl is an assistant prof e ssor of political science and director of nationality and Siberian studies at Columbia University's Harriman Institute.

Josef Stalin's underhanded agreement with Adolf Hitler to divide Eastern Europe is not just an embarrassment to the Kremlin and a tragedy for the Baltic peoples. It is a no-win issue for both sides. By tying their political fate to a complex historical event, Baltic nationalists are actually undermining their bid for sovereignty as well as threatening the territorial integrity of the largest Baltic republic, Lithuania.

Consider the tangled historical record. The immediate consequence of the Soviet-Nazi rapprochement in August, 1939, was not the incorporation of independent Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It was Poland that first fell victim to combined German and Soviet aggression that September. Soon thereafter, Belorussian and Ukrainian "popular assemblies" in Poland's former eastern territories petitioned the Soviet parliament for admission to the Soviet Union. Moscow graciously agreed. It was only in mid-1940 that the Soviets annexed the Baltic states, together with the Romanian territories of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina. Once again, ostensibly legitimate people's deputies asked Moscow that their countries be transformed into the Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian and Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republics. There is one more twist to the story: Stalin gave the Polish city of Vilnius to Lithuania.

It should be obvious why Moscow cannot accept the Baltic interpretation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. To grant the Baltic peoples independence on the basis of the pact's patent injustice would be to place the entire Soviet western boundary into question. It would mean returning Moldavia to Romania and the western Ukraine, western Belorussia and Vilnius, now Lithuania's capital, to Poland. Warsaw and Bucharest might be happy with such a deal. But the Ukrainians, Belorussians, Moldavians (who would face the unhappy prospect of living under Nicolae Ceausescu's Stalinist dictatorship) and, last but not least, the Lithuanians would not. And, of course, neither would Moscow.

Complicating matters even more is the recent declaration by a Lithuanian parliamentary commission that the Soviet Union's incorporation of Lithuania in mid-1940 was also illegal. Not that the Lithuanians are wrong. Rather, their argument, if extended as it must be to other non-Russian republics, becomes nothing less than a call for the dismemberment of the entire Soviet empire. After all, the Baltic experience is not unique. It has always been standard Soviet practice to justify imperial land-grabbing by claiming that the locals invited the Red Army in and then pleaded for annexation. Afghanistan almost became the latest instance of a practice that goes back to the Russian Revolution. At that time the scheme failed in the Baltic states and Finland. But it succeeded in Belorussia, the Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Central Asia. For Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to accept the commission's logic would be to sign the Soviet Union's death warrant, an unlikely prospect if ever there was one.

Small wonder, then, that Moscow and the Baltic nationalists seem to be on a collision course. It is not just that Gorbachev and his comrades, like any self-respecting imperial rulers, do not want to give up the Baltic states. No less important, the very terms of the debate are unacceptable to them. One way out of this logical dilemma might be for the Baltic peoples to eschew appeals to history and insist only that they, like all nations, have the internationally recognized human right of self-determination. And self-determination can range from independence, which the Balts want, to autonomy, for which other non-Russians might settle. As potentially destabilizing as it is, the logic of self-determination at least does not compel Moscow to immediately give the entire store away.

Naturally, even impeccable logic will not give the Baltic people their independence. Only Moscow can do that. And Moscow still appears more than a trifle reluctant to lose three of its most prosperous fiefdoms. The Communist Party Central Committee's condemnation Saturday of the "virus" of Baltic nationalism made that abundantly clear.

So far, the Baltic contest with Moscow is a classic example of an irresistible popular force meeting an immovable imperial object. The Baltic fronts already enjoy vast support and cannot get much stronger; it is Moscow that will have to weaken for the stand-off to come to an end.

How might that happen? If present trends continue, Gorbachev's visionary determination to push through perestroika and glasnost could so unsettle the already creaking Soviet system as to permit the Balts to tiptoe out the back door and present the harried Kremlin rulers with a fait accompli . Ironically, just as one emperor's ambitions doomed the Baltic peoples 50 years ago, so too another emperor's ambitions may save them today.

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