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Independence, Soviet Style

November 21, 1987

A sizeable minority of Puerto Ricans, with political support from Havana and Moscow, have agitated for independence from the United States. The American government does not particularly appreciate these stirrings of separatist sentiment, but pro-independence forces are free to conduct peaceful demonstrations and public relations activities. Non-binding votes have been held to test public opinion on the independence issue. So far, the people of Puerto Rico have overwhelmingly favored continued association with the United States in a statehood or commonwealth status.

It is instructive to compare the U.S. approach to the pro-independence forces in Puerto Rico with the Soviet treatment this week of Latvian demonstrators in behalf of independence from the Soviet Union.

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were independent countries from the end of World War I until 1939, when the Hitler-Stalin pact condemned the Baltic republics to incorporation into the Soviet Union. The United States has never recognized Soviet sovereignty over the three small countries. A recent congressional resolution recognized Nov. 18 as Latvian Independence Day.

It is arguable that symbolic congressional actions of this sort do more harm than good, since they make it easy for Moscow to claim that pro-independence agitation is inspired by imperialist agents. That was Moscow's propaganda response to large-scale street protests earlier this year to mark the anniversaries of the Soviet takeover and the signing of the 1939 pact. Blaming resolutions by the U.S. Congress for pro-independence agitation in the Baltic states is as absurd as the allegations by Southern segregationists in the 1960s that civil-rights demonstrations in this country were the work of "outside agitators."

Soviet authorities staged their own demonstration Wednesday in Riga, the Latvian capital, with 10,000 marchers protesting supposed American attempts to interfere in Soviet affairs. The massive formations of police that were on hand for that event stayed to fend off the efforts of pro-independence demonstrators--said to number 2,000--to protest Soviet rule at the symbolically important Freedom Monument.

The demonstration was nonviolent and, according to Western and Latvian dissident sources inside the Soviet Union, so was the police response. But the shutting down of the demonstration was a step back from the relative tolerance with which the Soviet authorities reacted to some earlier demonstrations by dissatisfied national minorities. Thirteen protesters were detained. Several pro-independence leaders were placed under house arrest. And the enormous Soviet propaganda machine was activated for a calculated campaign to label the demonstrators as instruments of U.S. intelligence.

With or without glasnost , the Soviet power structure apparently has no intention of allowing Latvian or other non-Russian minorities to mount public challenges to the legitimacy of Soviet rule.

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