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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.

March 17, 1992|TAMARA JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TALLINN, Estonia — 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.

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.

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.

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.

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