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Estonia Spurns Moscow’s Request to Back off Sovereignty

December 8, 1988

TALLINN, U.S.S.R. (AP) _ The Estonian parliament rebuffed Moscow Wednesday by voting to keep in place the tiny Baltic republic’s declaration of sovereignty.

The legislature also made Estonian the official language and asked the central government to consider calling repressions under the late dicator Josef Stalin ″crimes against humanity.″

The body refused to rescind its declaration of limited sovereignty by a 152-91 vote.

Moscow had branded the move illegal and told the republic to rescind it.

Instead, the body agreed merely to be ″guided″ by the national parliament, known as the Supreme Soviet.

The vote on the constitutional amendment to make Estonian the official language was 204-49 with four abstentions, 14 more votes than the two-thirds required. It was the widest margin of disagreement yet in the legislature, a former rubber-stamp body in which debate is a recent phenomenon.

But the legislature delayed action until January on a proposed law to force non-native residents to learn Estonian.

Under the proposed law, residents from other parts of the Soviet Union would have to learn Estonian. Many of them - including police, doctors and shop clerks - have lived in Estonia for years without doing so.

About 40 percent of Estonia’s 1.6 million residents are non-native, and the number is increasing. Estonians fear they will outnumbered in their own homeland and their language and culture will die.

The non-natives speak Russian, which everybody in the Soviet Union learns. Estonia has both Russian-language and Estonian-language newspapers, and business can be conducted in either language.

A Russian organization called Intermovement denounced the language proposal as divisive. At a rally last week, some members even called it an incitement to ″ethnic hatred.″

Martin Kuusk, an Estonian engineer, said hundreds of thousands of people have come to Estonia for well-paid factory jobs and ″if they want to stay, they must absorb our culture. If they do not want to learn, their country is in the neighborhood.″

Estonia joins four other republics in declaring their own official languages. Lithuania, a nearby Baltic republic, passed its law in recent weeks, but Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, three Caucasus republics in the south, have had theirs since 1978.

Estonia approved its declaration of sovereignty in all but defense and foreign affairs on Nov. 16.

It also amended the constitution to give itself the right to reject Soviet laws. But that new power has been used cautiously.

The Estonian parliament said Wednesday that crimes which it laid to Stalin should be prosecuted and suggested paying damages to the surviving victims from the national budget.

Tens of thousands of Estonians were deported to Siberia and the Arctic in the 1940s and 1950s, and many died there from the harsh conditions.

Stalin ruled from 1924-1953. According to Western historians, he ordered the murder or imprisonment of millions of Soviets. Many died in prison.

The Soviet Union, however, has only begun to admit the horrors of Stalin’s crimes in the past two years. Until now, there has been no official call to identify and prosecute the thousands of Soviet citizens who carried out Stalin’s orders and are still alive.

One Estonian activist said republican leaders did not go far enough in simply asking Moscow to consider the matter.

″The Soviet Union is still hunting Nazi war criminals all over the world,″ said Tonis Avikson, a spokesman for the Estonian People’s Front, an independent political group. ″If we declare the Stalinist repressions to be crimes against humanity, why shouldn’t we raise our hands against these people?″ he said.

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