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Regional Outlook : Baltics Face ‘Morning After’ New Freedom : * Caught in a slow, painful transition to capitalism, they must deal with shortages, political paralysis and fear.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The heat and hot water have been off for more than a month in the tiny, two-room apartment where Ruth and Jaak Huimerind live with their three children. But the hardships don’t end there.

Ruth, 36, comes home exhausted and upset after standing in line each day for a loaf of bread, or waiting an hour in the cold just to get inside a market--only to find that the shelves are either stripped bare or stocked with food she cannot really afford. Whatever she manages to buy must be cooked on a borrowed hot plate. There is no gas to fuel the stove.

Work is equally maddening. An award-winning artist, Ruth still carries a bottle of brandy in her purse to bribe the surly printer who runs off her posters. She has no choice; there is no other press. Jaak, a 34-year-old architect, is miserable working for the state firm, but he stays on, hoping the lingering Communist system of corruption and connections might land him a larger apartment.

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Like countless other families across the three Baltic states, the Huimerinds are struggling to eke out an existence in the post-Communist era, living day-to-day in a new world whose future is less a grand design than a hastily penciled sketch.

“We are caught in the middle of two systems,” sighed Jaak Huimerind, bouncing his 10-month-old son on a bony knee. They are caught economically, caught emotionally.

Six months after Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania won full independence from the disintegrating Soviet Union, the born-again Baltics remain entangled in the spider’s abandoned web.

And the price of freedom, they are learning, is fear and frustration.

Just two and a half years after East Bloc nations such as Czechoslovakia, Romania and Hungary opened the door to freedom after divorcing themselves from the Soviet superpower--which had choreographed every half-step of their lives since World War II--the scenario remains numbingly familiar.

First comes the drama of it all, the attention of a spellbound world, then victory, and, finally, euphoria. And then, after the TV cameras are gone and the congratulatory telegrams crumpled, come the cold apartments and empty shelves, the idled buses and shuttered banks.

“For 50 years we were driven into an abyss. We can’t get out of it in just a few months,” Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius told Parliament recently.

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With the lion’s share of humanitarian aid, credits and technical assistance now going to Russia, the Baltic states are well aware that they must find their own way out of the darkness. But how?

Under the centralized Soviet system, the Baltics, like other republics, were stripped of their ability to be self-sufficient. Estonia had farmland and exported much of its food, for example, but the seeds were imported from Russia, along with every drop of fuel, meaning the tractors and farm machinery could not run without Moscow’s cooperation.

In industrialized Latvia, factories relied on raw materials from “the empire” to churn out components, which were then sent back to Russia or another republic to be assembled into products.

The cattle in Lithuania lived on fodder from Russia, and the beef was then exported. The Baltics were almost completely dependent on Russia for imports of cheap energy and cheap grains.

Yet, the Baltics had flourished in their own fashion before the Soviets sent first their troops and then their colonizers. Estonia was once on a par with Finland. Even as the Communist system slashed away at this prosperity, the Baltics managed to maintain an enviable standard of living and productivity for the Soviet Union.

Given this track record, along with their cultural and historical ties to the West and their proximity to Scandinavia, experts still expect the Baltic nations to eventually emerge triumphant from the Soviet scrap heap, serving as an important and lucrative trade bridge between the new Commonwealth of Independent States and the world market.

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But the transition is proving slower--and far more painful--than the 8 million people in the Baltics seem to have ever imagined. Political disarray and paralysis, no new legal system, no currency of their own and uncertainty in neighboring Russia have contributed to the problem. Foreign investors are also leery of the continued presence of at least 120,000 Russian troops on Baltic soil; withdrawal may take years to complete.

With Russia’s economy in ruins and the distribution system in utter chaos, the effect on the Baltics is not so much a feeling of independence as a feeling of abandonment. They do not have the hard currency to buy goods on the world market, or credits to claim, nor do they have an abundance of finished products to trade. Russia remains their lifeline.

But contracts remain unfilled, and deliveries have been virtually nil for months now, forcing the Baltics to beg like runaway orphans at the hated headmaster’s table.

“I don’t think anybody knew what this crisis would be like and that we wouldn’t have anything to eat. Everything will get worse and worse,” said Ivi Proos, an economic adviser to the Estonian government, which recently collapsed amid criticism that Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar failed to foresee how critical the food and oil shortages would be.

The winter has been blessedly mild, but during one January cold snap, the nurses in a Tallinn maternity ward said the delivery room was so chilly that they could see the newborns’ breath. Markets were so barren that one white-collar couple told of living a whole week on nothing but bread and honey, saving the few eggs left in the refrigerator for their two children.

Inflation averaged 400% for the region last year, and the rate continues to climb. Russia is no longer printing or delivering enough rubles, and the Baltics have yet to introduce their own currencies.

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Although average salaries are considerably higher in the Baltics than they are in Russia, they are not nearly enough to keep pace with prices. Economists estimate that unemployment, which is only now starting to show up, could easily hit 20% this year as factories close because they are either unable to compete in the capitalist system or because they are unable to get enough raw materials to try.

“Life is sad,” said Rein Joe, a 53-year-old Estonian factory worker laid off for a month when the supply of raw materials ran out. “I’m supposed to get half pay, but I haven’t seen a penny yet,” he said. His family of four is getting by on his wife’s meager salary from teaching.

Once it reopens, Joe’s electronics plant plans to sack 130 of its 200 workers. And while the concept of streamlining may reflect an eagerness to plunge into the capitalist system, the method of firing employees points to a bureaucratic logic still mired in the socialist past: Only workers who live in the town where the plant is located will be kept on; those living in the suburbs will be fired. Competence and seniority will play no role, according to Joe, who has one of the lucky addresses.

The same attitude is also still pervasive, and potentially crippling, in the service sectors. Scowling doormen in major hotels in the Latvian and Lithuanian capitals of Riga and Vilnius still physically block every woman entering their shabby lobbies until she convinces them she is not a prostitute. Stores with anything at all to sell routinely lock the doors and let freezing customers in a few at a time.

“The way you get things done is still the same,” lamented Ruth Huimerind. “It’s so exhausting. You go to the printer and smile and be sweet and shut up and keep a bottle of brandy in your purse to bribe them. You have to listen to them yell at you and tell you you’re no good. This is sick.”

In the Lithuanian capital, the chief government economist, Kazimieras Antanavicius, is also angry over the lack of progress, the paralysis that seems to prevent people from making what should be the simplest of decisions.

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He recounted how five German firms came to town looking for office space. Like the rest of the former Soviet Union, the Baltics suffer from a severe housing shortage. The Germans found an empty, dilapidated building in Vilnius and offered to spend their own money and provide their own materials to totally renovate it. “Nobody would say no, and nobody would say yes,” Antanavicius said. “It’s very hard to find someone willing to solve a problem, to make a decision.”

Western help is also a source of frustration, he said.

“There’s no real willingness to do something,” he complained. “What happens? A U.S. consultant gets a grant to help the Baltics, then gets half a dozen college kids to work without pay preparing a report on the financial system. They make a couple of proposals that nobody ever carries out. These proposals were very clear to us two years ago. They tell us, ‘You must convert to hard currency.’ Yes, but how? We’ve known that for a long time. ‘Oh,’ they say, ‘that’s a big problem.’ End of consultation. We don’t need more advice.”

If things continue like this, he warns darkly, “the bottom line will be civil upheaval.”

People speak of a new bitterness and anger where hope should be. Crime rates have soared an average of 25%, and thieves are even stripping the copper wiring by the mile from electric train and trolley lines to sell on the black market for hard currency.

Surprisingly, it was Estonia, the smallest yet most prosperous of the Baltics in the past, that took the hardest hit this winter. Staples such as flour and milk and butter are rationed off and on throughout the Baltics, though they can be had for hard currency or outrageous prices at local flea markets. Since freedom came and government subsidies went, though, a pound of apples cost what a pound of meat once did.

In Estonia, there were bread lines this winter for the first time since World War II, and soup kitchens were set up to feed the elderly, whose monthly pensions are sometimes not enough to buy much more than bread, milk and a few ounces of sausage.

Helmi Lauste is a classic victim of the Baltics’ shaky transition. The 81-year-old Tallinn resident is entitled to the new minimum pension of 860 rubles a month, or roughly $8.60. But none of the incremental raises have reached her in the last six months, and she still collects only 252 rubles--$2.50.

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“This is the most difficult time I’ve ever been through,” she said, leaving a grocery store with a pint of milk and about three ounces of gristly sausage. “I won’t go hungry. I can always boil some potatoes.”

She is hunched over in pain from a crippled back, and as she shuffles off, she avoids the angry glares of customers who shouted at her earlier when she cut into line because she is too feeble to stand for long.

Some consumers and politicians angrily blame farmers for the shortages, accusing them of holding back food to create panic, knowing the prices will jump again within a few days, profiting them all the more. Suspecting that food was also leaving the country to be sold for hard currency in nearby Poland or even to desperate Russians, Lithuania announced severe fines for anyone caught taking food out of the country.

The situation in general is expected to improve slightly with a handful of new trade agreements with Russia, which has promised to send fuel and raw materials to the Baltics in exchange for food. But supplies still fall far below usual quotas.

The malaise extends even to the arts, where the realities of everyday life overshadow the new freedom of expression. Ruth Huimerind’s friends bemoan having to promote and sell their own work now and even express nostalgia for the socialist system that supported them regardless of their talent or marketability.

In Vilnius, Arvydas Dapsys, a 32-year-old actor in the city theater, is looking forward to touring Scandinavia by bus with a production of “The Cherry Orchard,” but he also wonders how long the Lithuanian government can afford to subsidize the theater.

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Just a year ago, he remembers how empty the theaters were because Soviet tanks were in the streets trying to crush the Lithuanian drive for independence. People stopped coming out at night.

“Earlier, it was like everyone was in a cage and everybody knew we had to escape somehow,” Dapsys explained, “but there was only one door and one way out and everybody knew it. We had to make our plans without the guard hearing us, and then agree on the right time.

“Now, we’re out. We escaped. But we’re still right outside the cage door, trying to agree on which direction to flee.”

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