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Moscow Asks West’s Help on Baltics : Soviet Union: The Kremlin wants U.S., other nations to discourage the region from seceding. A break could lead to a ‘catastrophe,’ a party official said.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Soviet Union, faced with growing demands for independence in its three Baltic republics, is asking the United States and other Western countries to discourage their secession as a threat to European stability and broader East-West relations, according to senior Soviet officials and Western diplomats.

The Soviet argument, which emphasizes the need for a political evolution after the dramatic upheavals in Eastern Europe, has won considerable sympathy within the Bush Administration and in West European capitals, these sources said, but has drawn criticism from conservatives pleased to see the possible breakup of the “Soviet empire.”

“The secession of the Baltic republics, particularly if encouraged by the West, would probably throw our relations back at least to what they were after Afghanistan and the Korean airliner incident,” a senior Communist Party official said here, “and at worst they lead to a general world catastrophe.”

In referring to the sharp deterioration in East-West relations after Moscow’s 1979 military intervention in Afghanistan and the shooting down of a South Korean airliner in 1983, the official recalled the two incidents in the past decade that not only heightened international tensions but increased the risk of military confrontation.

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The current fear, according to well-placed Soviet sources, is that secession by the Baltic republics would encourage nationalists in other Soviet republics to seek independence and thus bring the dismemberment of the Soviet Union.

“Mikhail Gorbachev would not survive this, nor would perestroika ,” a senior Soviet diplomat said, also asking not to be quoted by name. “Beyond this basic political fact, the separation of the Baltic republics, for example, would involve the security of the Soviet Union.

“The West, particularly the United States, should not cheer the Baltic republics on, and we have told everyone this. We have told them: ‘Let us do things in our own way, in our own time. Developments so far have not been unfavorable to the West. Let events evolve by themselves.’ ”

These warnings, which have been delivered across Europe and to the United States and Japan, underline the seriousness of the challenge that President Mikhail S. Gorbachev faces in the growing nationalist ferment around the country, according to Western diplomats.

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Gorbachev, as he acknowledged himself in Lithuania last week, is now in the most dangerous moment of his five years as the Soviet leader, and he has tied his own political fate to the successful resolution of the current crisis.

“This is not just the question of Mikhail Gorbachev being the best, or the only, man for this job or perestroika being what the West has long prayed would happen in the Soviet Union,” the Soviet diplomat said during the course of a background discussion of developments in Lithuania and the other Baltic republics of Estonia and Lativa.

“The West must consider, as we do every day, that if Gorbachev fails, then his successor will not be following the same policies, not at all. If he fails, he will be replaced, and so will his policies.”

Gorbachev, speaking in Lithuania last week, argued strongly against secession by the Baltics, a right guaranteed them under the present Soviet constitution.

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The United States and most other NATO members have never recognized the Soviet Union’s incorporation of the Baltic republics, which gained their independence from Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution but lost it after Josef Stalin’s 1939 pact with Adolph Hitler dividing Eastern and Central Europe into Soviet and Nazi spheres of influence.

Washington now takes the view that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will probably all succeed in winning some form of independence, according to Bush Administration officials, but has decided that the best policy for the United States is not to interfere.

Secretary of States James A. Baker III, however, is expected to discuss this issue during talks here next month with Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign minister.

Interviewed by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, Shevardnadze asserted last week that, to carry out a successful foreign policy, the Soviet Union has to be a strong state, not one weakened by separatism and secession.

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Recent improvements in international relations, he said, were due largely “to Soviet perestroika and the fact that the Soviet Union is a strong state as a result, above all, of a strong alliance among brotherly nations.”

“If we would weaken this alliance, we would decrease the effectiveness of our foreign policy,” he said. “Anything positive that is occurring now in the world would be undermined.”

The second point that Moscow has made to the West is its sensitivity to any reduction in its security. With the sweeping changes under way in Eastern Europe, which for more than 40 years has served as the Soviet Union’s forward defense line, the Kremlin wants to ensure the stability of its own frontiers and their defense, according to these Soviet officials.

“The military balance is obviously changing across Europe, and we believe that everyone will benefit from the reduction of the military forces deployed on the Continent,” the diplomat said. “At the same time, the security of all nations must be preserved and the mutual confidence we have developed in Europe must be maintained. . . .

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“In this context, Americans might consider how they would react if New England were talking about seceding, or Texas or the old Confederate states. These are issues of territorial integrity and sovereignty and, consequently, of security.”

Apprehensive Generals

Another Soviet official, who has also briefed visiting Western delegations over the past month, commented: “Say that the Baltics declared their independence, would they be friendly to us, or neutral, or would they become a NATO outpost? You can see why our generals, who must defend the motherland, are very apprehensive.”

The third point that Soviet officials are stressing in their warnings to the West is the danger of unleasing new and difficult-to-control forces through the separation of not only the Baltics but other Soviet republics.

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“We share the common hope that we are entering an era of greater peace and less international tension, but this could be upset through the revival, for example, of old national enmities, of militant Islamic fundamentalism, of unfulfilled expectations on the part of perhaps the Lithuanians or the Latvians when their new government cannot provide everything people hoped for,” the official said.

“The peace of the last four decades may have been a cold peace, but we should improve on it, not destroy it. What have we gained if, say, the Poles demand from independent Lithuania territory that used to be Polish and prepare to fight for it? What if the Latvians start to go bankrupt and they turn to an ultra-rightist, if not to say Nazi, force? And what about the Armenians, caught between the Turks, the Azerbaijanis and the Iranians, all Muslim and all militant?”

While Soviet officials generally praise the “balance and prudence” shown by the Bush Administration on the Baltics question, they are sharply critical of the broadcasts by the two U.S.-run radio stations, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, that broadcast to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in local languages.

“These stations are calling for immediate secession, and their broadcasts are highly destabilizing,” the party official said. “They broadcast the most extreme of the nationalist slogans, and in some cases, such as Azerbaijan and Armenia, set one nationality against another. These broadcasts are provoking internal strife and escalating conflicts, and we believe deliberately so.”

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No longer jammed, the Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe broadcasts have large audiences in the Soviet Union because of their topicality, and they have been increased as Soviet residents have become able to call their headquarters in West Germany and discuss current developments in interviews that are then aired.

“These two American radio stations seem quite ready to broadcast the most inflammatory material,” the official said. “They appear to operate from the old Cold War philosophy that whatever harms the Soviet Union helps the United States, and that clearly is wrong today. Separatism endangers much more than the Soviet Union.”


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