Estonia, Latvia vote for independence

March 12, 1991

By Sally Low

A large majority of voters in Estonia and Latvia cast ballots in favour of independence on March 3. Voter turnout was 82.8% in Estonia and 87.56% in Latvia. In both republics, over 64% voted yes to questions that, as in Lithuania on February 9, linked independence with democracy.

While these results are just below the two-third majority required by the law governing secession from the USSR, they indicate overwhelming sentiment in favour of independence and, at least in Latvia, some support for independence among the Russian minority.

According to figures released by the Latvian government, the lowest yes vote of any city occurred in Daugavpils, where only 13% of the population are ethnic Latvians. There, 32.5% voted yes, 25.2% voted no and 36.61% abstained.

In Estonia, the yes vote was as low as 12.4% in the town of Sillamae (where only 27.38% voted) and 17.8% in Narva. Given that slightly more than 60% of the population are ethnic Estonian and 28% Russians, a more detailed breakdown of voting patterns would be needed before an accurate picture of attitudes towards secession among ethnic minorities could be gleaned.

While support for more autonomy from the centre is strong in most republics, republican governments are almost equally split on the proposed new union treaty. Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Moldavia did not sign the draft treaty presented to the Federation Council on March 7. Russia, Byelorussia, the Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan did.

Some of the pro-independence governments have taken provocative stands that make difficult a real dialogue. Lithuanian leader Vytautus Landsbergis, for example, is said to have prevented radio broadcasts of a statement by ex-premier Kazimiera Prunskiene that the barricades in front of parliament house served only to heighten tensions. In Georgia, where more than 30 people have been killed in clashes between Georgians and the Ossetian minority, government leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia has said Georgian citizenship might be granted only to those who can prove their ancestors lived in Georgia before 1801!

Neither has the central government taken adequate steps to repair the damage caused by events such as the killings by Soviet troops in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, on April 9, 1989, or the attempted coups in the Baltic states in January. Gorbachev has said it was illegal for the "National Salvation Committees" in Lithuania and Latvia to call on troops for assistance, but no-one has been brought to justice for the shootings, and some public buildings are still occupied.

Three members of the "Shield" independent military union were arrested in Vilnius on February 12 after they announced that, according to their investigations, the central committee of the Communist Party of Lithuania had requested army and KGB troops to carry out a coup in Lithuania January 11-13. This could not have Gorbachev's knowledge, and the ultimate blame must rest with him, defence minister Dimitri Yazov, interior minister Boris Pugo and KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, they claimed. The three were arrested by a military patrol and charged with illegal possession of narcotics and weapons.

The March 17 referendum on the union treaty will be a crucial test for Gorbachev. On March 7, it was agreed to change the referendum question to read, "Do you consider it necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a union of equal sovereign states?"

The original wording called for the federation to be renewed and specifically guaranteed the rights and freedoms of all nationalities. Some nationalists had interpreted this to mean the right of minorities within their own borders to veto secession.

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