TALLINN, U.S.S.R. -- Tiit Made, a leading politician in Estonia, is only half joking when he suggests that many people in this tiny Baltic republic might stay at home rather than hit the streets if Soviet troops attack.

"The Lithuanians are ready to jump under the tanks," he said, referring to last month's deaths in the largest Baltic republic. "We are not."

Made's remark reflects not cowardice but the strategic difference between Estonia and its larger Baltic cousins of Lithuania and Latvia. With a population of just 1.57 million, less than some Soviet cities, Estonia is trying to keep a low political profile, ignoring rather than insulting Moscow as the republic quietly seeks to regain the freedom that it and the other Baltics lost in 1940.

"This is a Nordic country," remarked Estonian Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar, pausing before completing his thought. "We sit down and think for a long time before doing anything."

Estonia has been outside of the world spotlight because it was spared the bullets and bloodshed that claimed at least 19 lives in Lithuania and Latvia last month. Politicians here say they want to continue focusing on formulating new ideas, implementing them first and then stepping aside as the larger, more aggressive Baltic republics charge into battle.

The Soviet Union's most Westernized republic, Estonia was the first to draw up a program for economic autonomy, the first to declare political sovereignty and the first to elect a legislature outside of the Soviet poltical system. Even so, the atmosphere in this capital is much more relaxed than in Riga or Vilnius, the tense capitals of Latvia and Lithuania, respectively.

In all three Baltic republics, the parliament buildings have become centers and symbols of the struggle against Soviet rule. But the boulders and cinderblocks barricading Estonia's pink-colored parliament are far fewer than in Lithuania and Latvia. The Estonian guards carry batons while the Latvians are armed with pistols and machine guns and forbid any traffic around their sandbagged parliament.

Endel Lippmaa, the minister in charge of relations with Moscow, is a chemist who talks with clinical dispassion about the minimalist strategy he has adopted in his dealings with an increasingly hard-line leadership in the Kremlin. "Less contact, less friction," he said.

The Baltic republics work closely together and support each other -- Estonia helped print Latvian newspapers that were immobilized last month by a Soviet military raid on their publishing plant. Despite their low-key approach, the Estonians admire the courage of Lithuania and its outspoken president, Vytautas Landsbergis, who is on the rhetorical front line with his denunciations of the Soviet military.

"The victims of Lithuania were not wasted," said Tunne Kelam, chairman of the elected but unofficial Congress of Estonia. "They moved the whole of Western public opinion." He said the Lithuanian resistance prevented the success of last month's Kremlin crackdown -- and its inevitable spread to Estonia.

Nonetheless, the republic faces tensions within the roughly 40 percent of its population that hails from outside its borders, mostly from Russia. Although opinion polls indicate that non-Estonians are not passionately against independence and some even support it, their leaders contend that tempers are set to explode.

"The {Estonian} government must resign," said Vladimir Jarovoi, director of the Dzigztel armament factory in Tallinn and a leader of the anti-independence movement. "This would make it possible to avoid the use of arms."

Estonian political leaders are less worried by Jarovoi, whom they view as Moscow's handpicked troublemaker, than they are about Moscow itself. Some think Western criticism altered the actions of Soviet troops and will prevent a recurrence. But Prime Minister Savisaar warned that Moscow may be waiting for the right moment to strike again against all of the Baltics.

"Their scenario for that time failed," he said in an interview. "It doesn't mean that they can't think of a new scenario."

In the meantime, the quiet movement for independence continues, according to Made, a member of the Estonian and Soviet legislatures and one of four economists who helped draft the economic independence program. Estonian leaders already have printed a new currency that is stored at a secret location outside the Soviet Union, ready for the day when Estonia replaces the ruble with its own kroon.