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Baltic States: Analysis From Washington--Another Critical Anniversary

Washington, 2 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Five years ago today, then U.S. President George Bush announced that Washington was restoring the exchange of diplomats with the three Baltic countries, a step that represented the success of American non-recognition policy and one that gave a new impulse for freedom in the former Soviet Union.

Both at the time and subsequently, Bush was much criticized for waiting so long to acknowledge that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had recovered their independence following the collapse of the coup in Moscow.

When Bush made his announcement, the United States became the 37th country to take that step, coming right after Cuba and right before Outer Mongolia. His successor, Bill Clinton, for example, said during the 1992 campaign that the United States should have been first.

The timing of the announcement reflected the coming together of three things:

It represented a triumph of American non-recognition policy. For more than 50 years, the United States and most Western countries had never recognized the forcible incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union, an act made possible by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

As a result of that policy, Washington had continued to maintain ties with the diplomatic representatives of the pre-war governments. Thus, Bush was taking a different step on September 2 than had many of the other countries: unlike them, he only had to announce the restoration of an exchange of diplomats and not the recognition of Baltic independence as such.

Bush took this step under intense pressure from the nearly one million Americans of Baltic heritage and the millions of other Americans who had thrilled to Baltic efforts to recover their rightful place in the world and been horrified by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to block them. .

Bush took this step in a deliberate fashion because he was always profoundly aware that actions by the United States, precisely because of America's geopolitical status, would inevitably carry far more weight than the actions of other states and could, if precipitous, provoke the Soviet and Russian governments then in Moscow.

But the meaning of Bush's action remains equally significant on this, its fifth anniversary:

First, by taking this step, President Bush put the American imprimatur on the real results of failure of the Soviet coup: the dramatic shift of power in Moscow from Mikhail Gorbachev to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin had recognized Estonian independence on August 24; Gorbachev was not to do so until later in September.

Second, by breaking with the status quo, something Bush always had been reluctant to do, he raised the hopes of other Soviet republics that the United States, whatever it said in public, would ultimately recognize their independence as well. Thus, and regardless of whether he intended it or not, to an important extent what Bush did on September 2 presaged the rapid disintegration of the U.S.S.R.

And third, by acting relatively slowly from the perspective of the Baltic peoples and many others, Bush gave the three Baltic governments a baptism by fire in the realities of international politics. However principled the non-recognition policy may have been, the United States would only deal with these three small countries in the context of larger geopolitical realities.

Over the past five years, that lesson has been delivered time and again.

But on this anniversary of a truly historic step, both the Baltic states and their neighbors may want to remember just what happened in September 1991 and why.