A senior Soviet official has disclosed that Polish labor turmoil exerted a highly disturbing influence on Soviet Estonia in the fall and winter of 1981, igniting nationalist sentiments and leading to organized attempts to stage strikes emulating the Solidarity independent trade union in Poland.
Karl Vaino, first secretary of the Estonian Communist Party, made it clear that the situation in Estonia had reached a critical stage and the authorities had to mobilize all their resources to defeat the project. He said it was brought under control only after great efforts.
Vaino's extraordinarily frank analysis of the situation appeared in his article published by the journal Kommunist, the theoretical voice of the Soviet Central Committee.
He said a letter under the heading "read it and pass it on" was circulating in Estonia in the fall of 1981. It called on the population "in the name of justice and democracy" to participate in a half-hour strike on Dec. 1 and on the first of every subsequent month. He said various calls for work stoppages were "similar to those advanced in Poland by Solidarity."
It was rumored at the time that western areas of the Soviet Union bordering on Poland were seriously affected by the Polish events and that the situation was a cause for deep disquiet for Kremlin leaders before Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law on Dec. 13, 1981.
Vaino's article provides the first detailed account of the impact of the Polish example on one Soviet republic.
Estonia is not far from the Polish borders and has had extensive contact with Poland.
The Polish crisis exacerbated the already uneasy situation in Estonia. Because of the crisis, the Soviet military presence in Estonia was augmented, an influx that served to reinforce ethnic Estonian grievances about attempts to increase Russian influence in the Baltic republic.
It was at that time that 41 Estonian intellectuals sent a letter to the Soviet Central Committee complaining about the decline of Estonian culture and an intensification of efforts to boost Russian influence.
In his article, Vaino makes no reference to this letter reflecting basic Estonian grievances. Statistics show that the ethnic Estonian population in the republic has declined during the past three decades while the Russian and other Slavic populations have increased.
In the period between 1959 to 1970, the ethnic Estonian proportion of the population has declined from 77 percent to 68 percent. At the beginning of 1979, this figure had declined to 64.7 percent. The Slavic--mainly Russian--proportion of Estonia's population accounted for 32 percent in 1979.
This is complicated by two other factors. One is that the Estonian birth rate has been extremely low throughout this century even when Estonia was an independent republic before World War II. The other is that 6 percent of Estonia's population emigrated during World War II and settled mainly in Sweden, the United States and Canada.
The population divide has been aggravated by other factors. The Estonians are lingustically and ethnically close to the Finns and their natural orientation is toward the West. The proximity of Finland and its radio and television programs make the Estonians keenly aware of the outside world and provide them with a detailed knowledge of the situation in Poland.
The republic's predominantly Estonian culture is contrasted by a strongly Russian outlook in the political and technological fields. Extensive new projects of resource exploitation that demand increased manpower have accelerated the inflow of Russian settlers, especially unskilled laborers.
Given the relatively small population--it totals about 1.5 million--one can assume that the conflict between the two ethnic groups is intense.
While the fear of "Russification" has intensified the resentment felt by ethnic Estonians, ethnic Slavs are said to be increasingly unhappy about alleged discrimination against them. Such sentiments make for an explosive mixture.
Although attempts to organize strikes in Estonia had no success, Vaino's article indicates that resurgent nationalism continues to be a cause of deep concern for the authorities. Following the military crackdown in Poland, Moscow organized two ideological conferences last year. One was held in Riga, the capital of Latvia last June, and the other in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia in October.
Vaino explained the resurgence of nationalism by the fact that Estonians maintain ties with emigre groups, mainly those in Sweden. He said the West was using such contacts as correspondence, telephone connections and personal contacts--as well as tourism and cultural links--to undermine Soviet power in the republic.
Moreover, he said, Soviet power in Estonia was established relatively late after the area was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940. In pre-Soviet Estonia, he said, "in all the spheres of life, orientation was toward the West."
Vaino conceded that the Estonian Communist Party was weak and its party units at various enterprises "as a rule" have only a few members and therefore "do not command sufficient influence."