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Russian Strikers Go Back to Work in Estonia

July 28, 1989

TALLINN, U.S.S.R. (AP) _ Thousands of striking Russians went back to work Friday in Estonia as their representatives began talks with a government commission set up to consider complaints that new Estonian laws infringe on their voting rights.

″We are working during the talks,″ said Gennady Korol, a strike committee spokesman at the Tallinn shipyard.

Local activists, meanwhile, applauded preliminary approval in Moscow by the national legislature of a law giving the three Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - greater control over their economies, including the possibility of creating their own currencies.

The Russian workers went on strike a week ago to protest a law requiring many of them to learn to speak Estonian, and another demanding two years residency to vote and at least five years residency to stand for office. Russian speakers make up a third of the Baltic republic’s 1.6 million population.

Mark R. Shlendukhov, a strike committee spokesman, said as many as 32 factories had stopped work at the height of the strike. But a journalist for the Estonian Telegraph Agency, Elkond Liebman, said the number was about 15.

In Moscow, the Supreme Soviet on Thursday approved the first of three necessary readings of two resolutions that would give the republics economic independence by Jan. 1.

″We thought it was a great victory because we got an overwhelming majority in the parliament,″ said Rein Veidemann, chairman of the 11-member governing board of the Estonian Popular Front. ″It’s an economic victory and also a big political victory.″

Mikhail Bronstein, an Estonian economist credited with devising the autonomy plan, said the version given preliminary approval Thursday by the Supreme Soviet will allow his republic to have its own monetary and financial system.

Bronstein said a separate currency would allow for price reform. Many state-set prices have no relation to costs in the Soviet Union, but the Kremlin has hesitated to eliminiate hidden subsidies of food and housing for fear of mass unrest.

The resolutions, if passed into law, would wrest control of industry from Moscow-based ministries and gives it to the republic. Businesses or groups of enterprises would be permitted to trade directly with firms in the other 14 Soviet republics.

″We can use the ruble for trade with other republics, while our own currency would be used to defend the population against inflation and wild fluctuation of prices″ by controlling the new money supply while introducing market force economics, Bronstein said.

The Soviet Union blames a vast oversupply of rubles for many of its own economic problems. Wages have risen faster than production, so workers have plenty of cash, but there is nothing to buy.

The Baltic republics have complained for years that Moscow ministries exploited the once-independent republics, taking away their natural resources and giving little back.

The legislature debated two days before initial approval of the two resolutions by what the Tass news agency said was an overwhelming majority of the 412 deputies present. It called on the Cabinet to draw up draft laws for ratification by the Supreme Soviet by Oct. 1.

The first resolution calls for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to convert to a profit and loss cost accounting system, which would allow them to sign independent trade agreements with the other 12 Soviet republics.

The second approved a draft law on economic independence. Lithuania and Estonia have already declared themselves sovereign.

Vice President Anatoly I. Lukyanov made it clear the resolutions apply to all three republics, although Latvia’s Supreme Soviet only approved economic independence plans Thursday and had no time to give its proposals to Moscow.

Critics of the resolutions said it was unfair to grant the Baltics economic freedom before such rights were offered to all the republics.

Under the proposed legislation, Baltic trade relations between Moscow and other Soviet republics will be based on contracts rather than the present ″command system″ whereby ministers in Moscow make economic decisions, said Tarmu Tammerk, an editor at the Estonian newspaper Kodumaa.

Estonia, with Western-style shops and an atmosphere more like nearby Finland than the Soviet Union, has been a proving ground for many of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s economic and political reforms.

In the republic of Georgia, meanwhile, a newspaper said clashes there in the past two weeks have killed 14 people and injured 448.

Nine of the 14 dead were Abkhazian, the Georgian newspaper Zarya Vostoka said, while 302 of the 448 injured were Georgian.

At least three of the dead may have been killed for non-ethnic reasons, the newspaper said. Tass has reported a higher death toll of 21, but there was no explanation of the discrepancy.

Georgian activists claim that the Abkhazian rioting was preceded by weeks of threats by Abkhazian activists, and during that time they obtained massive amounts of arms.

Although both Georgians and Abkhazians claim discrimination, Georgian activists say the unrest was deliberately instigated to divert attention from their demands for independence, and to break Abkhazia off from the rest of Georgia.

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