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Estonia, Latvia Vote Overwhelmingly for Independence : Baltics: Secession from the Soviet Union passes by wide margins in both republics. The next test is a countrywide referendum on Gorbachev’s plan.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Citizens of the Baltic republics of Estonia and Latvia, taking another step toward secession from the Soviet Union, voted by margins of 3 to 1 for the re-establishment of their republics’ independence in referendums Sunday.

According to incomplete results, more than 77% of Latvian voters responded “yes” to the question: “Do you support the democratic and independent statehood of the Republic of Latvia?”

In Estonia, where voters were asked: “Do you want the independence of the Republic of Estonia to be restored?” 78% of voters answered “yes,” according to final results given by officials there.

Although the plebiscites have no legal force, they will be used, along with a similar referendum last month in Lithuania, where 91% supported independence, to demonstrate the broad popular desire in all three Baltic republics to re-establish the independence that they had enjoyed before their forcible incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1940.

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“Time is now on our side. We can think out every step and thereby achieve real independence,” Anatolijs Gorbunovs, the Latvian president, said as he voted in the republican capital of Riga. “This is an important step in that process.”

Estonian President Arnold Ruutel, who voted in the university town of Tartu, said that the plebiscite would be “an answer to Moscow and a message to the whole world.”

Dainis Ivans, leader of the pro-independence Latvian Popular Front, said that the three Baltic republics next will adopt a joint declaration calling for an international conference on the Baltics similar to that which confirmed German unification.

With reported turnouts of more than 85%, Estonian and Latvian leaders said that the referendums clearly showed the extent of their support, contrary to charges by Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev that they had no mandate to seek their republics’ independence.

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“Gorbachev said that we were afraid of such a poll and that Latvia is afraid of independence,” Ivans said. “This is the answer.”

Both republics have large minorities of Russians and other nationalities--nearly 50% in Latvia and about 40% in Estonia--and this has lent strength to Gorbachev’s argument that the support for independence was significantly less than the leadership claimed.

In Latvia, the independent Baltic News Service reported that 77.2% of participating voters had supported independence--more than Latvian leaders had expected--and that 21.3% had opposed it with votes in two districts in Riga still being counted. The overall turnout was 88.8% of eligible voters, the news service said.

Results from nine of Latvia’s 15 rural districts showed overwhelming support for independence among ethnic Latvians, ranging from 83% in the Jekabpils region of eastern Latvia to 98% in the Talsu area of western Latvia. In one of the six districts in heavily Russian Riga, 75% of the voters supported independence.

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Measured against the whole electorate, including voters who did not participate, independence was endorsed by nearly 69%, the news service reported.

In neighboring Estonia, results showed equally strong backing for independence, with 77.83% voting “yes” and a turnout of 83%, according to officials there.

On Hiilumaa, one of the republic’s major islands, 98.93% voted for independence, according to election commission officials. In the Laane Viruma region, 92% voted for independence, and in Rapla, the vote was 98% in favor of independence. In the city of Tartu, 85.6% supported independence.

In Silame, an Estonian city with many Russian workers at its military plants, the vote was 60% against independence. Only 27% of eligible voters participated.

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Gorbachev, who is battling to hold the Soviet Union together, has called for a countrywide referendum on March 17 on reforming the Soviet political system but preserving it as a federal state. He has dismissed the Baltic votes as lacking legal validity and as attempts to divert support from his efforts.

“Gorbachev’s policy is not a policy of reforms but an attempt to preserve the totalitarian state,” Ivans said. “Gorbachev’s referendum does not solve the problem but serves to freeze the process of the union’s collapse.”

The Soviet president has said that the Baltic states and other republics could secede, as the country’s constitution permits, but that they must follow legal procedures, including a further referendum with three-quarters approval and a five-year wait, laid down last year.

The pro-Soviet Communist Parties in both republics had opposed the referendums Sunday and urged “no” votes when the nationalist governments decided to proceed with the plebiscites in defiance of Gorbachev.

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“We believe that residents of the Latvian republic should say no to the kind of independence and democracy that are being advocated by the new political forces in the republic,” Latvian Communist Party Secretary Arnold Klauzin said.

“Independence means, above all, rising prices, the deterioration of living standards and, for farm workers, the return of land to its former owners.”

Yevgeni V. Kogan, leader of the pro-Soviet Estonian Interfront movement, charged that the nationalist government there had rigged the voting. “The results of the referendum (on Sunday) were decided beforehand,” he said.

The true reflection of popular will can be expected in two weeks in the countrywide plebiscite, Kogan added. “Our referendum will be held on March 17,” he said, “and I think we will get about 80% of those who vote then.”

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