MOSCOW — Half a century after carving up the heart of Europe in secret with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union gave up the choicest of its spoils Friday by recognizing the independence of the three unbowed Baltic states: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
The decision, at the inaugural meeting of the day-old State Council, had been promised by Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. It was the first concrete episode in the breakup of the Soviet state that he is struggling mightily to prevent.
"We have recognized their independence, and those republics are now separate from the Soviet Union," Soviet Foreign Minister Boris N. Pankin said at a Moscow news conference. "We are witnessing a historic point in time."
Baltic leaders, whose governments had already broken official ties to the Soviet Union, hailed the Kremlin move, although many in the states said it came years too late. "The fact that this decision has been made is a very joyful and positive act in all aspects, not only to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, but also to the Soviet Union itself and the whole world," Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis told reporters in Vilnius.
But about an hour's drive away, in the university city of Kaunas, at least one Lithuanian shrugged off the news. "I think Lithuania was always free. My grandfather and father said I must say that Lithuania was always free," Lina Lagunaite said. "Today doesn't change that."
The United States--which never recognized the Baltics' forced absorption by the Soviet Union but did little to help its democratically elected governments in their face-off with Moscow--extended diplomatic recognition Monday. About 50 other countries have also established ties.
Pankin said talks will soon begin with the Baltics on a range of issues--from redefining economic relations to the fate of the 250,000 or so Soviet military personnel stationed in their territories.
But one aspect of the Soviet decision will raise hackles among many in the Baltics. Although finally allowing its neighbors' independence, the Soviet Union again refused to acknowledge that it had annexed them by threats and brute force in 1940, referring only to the "concrete historical and political condition" on the eve of World War II.
In other developments:
* Iran, a southern neighbor of the Soviet Union, applauded communism's fall and the Baltics' independence but accused Moscow of a double standard on the Muslim republics. "We accept with difficulty that some republics should be independent because Westerners wish it, while the others cannot become independent because Westerners do not wish it," Iran's President Hashemi Rafsanjani said on Tehran Radio, adding that Iran reserves the right to defend Soviet Muslims in any confrontation with Moscow.
* In Moldova, protesters demanding the release of six dissident parliamentarians blocked rail lines. The dissidents are part of a movement that this week declared Moldova's eastern, largely Russian region an independent republic. That act was judged unconstitutional by Moldovan authorities, who themselves had proclaimed their independence only the previous week.
* Azerbaijan established its own "National Ministry of Defense," headed by a former deputy commander of Soviet forces in Germany. Uzbekistan began forming a national guard. Georgia said it was ending its participation in all Soviet government bodies.
* The Presidium of the Russian Supreme Soviet, the Russian Federation's highest executive authority, ordered that Leningrad, the cradle of the Bolshevik Revolution, get back its old name of St. Petersburg. That move is in keeping with the wishes of voters, as expressed in a citywide referendum last June.
* And in another blow at a symbol and ritual of Soviet rule, Air Marshal Yevgeny I. Shaposhnikov, the defense minister, canceled the traditional Nov. 7 Revolution Day parade across Red Square. One Moscow newspaper said the reason was the cost.
At the Council
The State Council's unanimous vote on the Baltics came only half an hour after it convened with Gorbachev in the chair.
The fledgling institution was created Thursday by the Congress of People's Deputies as part of a wholesale realignment and decentralization of power supposed to create a new, looser confederation in place of the Soviet Union.
Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin, whose government had already recognized Baltic independence, attended, as did high-ranking officials from the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Georgia, Byelorussia, Kirghizia and Azerbaijan, the Interfax news agency reported.
Estonia's prime minister, Edgar Savisaar, was present as the representative of all three Baltic nations.
"Mikhail Gorbachev congratulated me and the whole Estonian state, wished us all success and happiness," Savisaar told Estonian Radio afterward.
It was a major change of position by Gorbachev, who last year had secured passage of a law delaying a Soviet republic's secession by at least five years.