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Baltic Diplomats Wait And Hope

May 29, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union have rekindled the hopes of three aging diplomats whose embassies have survived in obscurity for nearly 50 years, nurtured by symbols and the benevolence of the United States.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - the Baltic states swallowed up by Josef Stalin in 1940 and which comprise three of the 15 Soviet republics - do not exist at the United Nations. They do not exist at major international organizations. Their names sound like a footnote of historical trivia.

But in downtown Washington and mid-town Manhattan, three Baltic legations hoist their flags daily, issue Baltic passports and meet with U.S. officials.

At the State Department, a Baltic Affairs officer conducts business as though the Soviets had never laid claim to the three strategically located states which declared their independence in 1918.

The U.S. government does not recognize the forced annexation and has always treated the three envoys, who hold the rank of charge d’affaires, like any other diplomat, listing them in the official State Department Diplomatic List and inviting them to all receptions for ambassadors.

In recent months, however, the Baltic diplomatic corps has more to do than just attend receptions. Along with U.S. officials, they have been meeting with a growing stream of nationalists allowed to travel to the United States, gathering information about the unprecedented grassroots swell of demands for greater independence.

In what amounts to a virtual call for secession, Baltic nationalists issued a call earlier this month for economic independence from Moscow and adopted a platform asserting their right to set policies and veto directives from the Kremlin.

The Baltic representatives in the United States agree these are the most exciting times they have known in nearly 50 years. But they worry about Soviet reprisals.

Ernst Jaakson has represented Estonia in the United States since coming to San Francisco as a young consul in 1929. In 1937, he was transferred to New York.

Now in his 80s, Jaakson appears overwhelmed by the recent surge of Estonians who openly visit the three-room legation office. ″Once they were afraid of the KGB. Now they come very freely, it’s very encouraging,″ he said.

In Washington, nestled between the Ghanaian and Polish Embassies, a yellow- green-and-red flag flutters over a stone mansion that has housed the Lithuanian legation since the 1920s. It is getting a $200,000 face lift in response to a revived interest in the legation, both by Soviet and American visitors.

Nowadays, Lithuanian visitors from the Soviet Union pose for photos against the backdrop of the flag and some even ask to be issued a Lithuanian passport, said Stasys Lozoraitis, the charge d’affaires.

Lozoraitis and his staff of four rattle around the five-story mansion, which also serves as his home when he is not in Rome representing Lithuania at the Vatican.

Lozoraitis rejected a suggestion that the Baltic legations have been kept alive by CIA funds. The three states pooled investments they had made abroad prior to the Soviet occupation and live off the interest, Lozoraitis and the other diplomats said.

Lozoraitis, a courtly, soft-spoken man, has diplomacy in his blood. His father was posted as Lithuania’s ambassador to the Vatican just days before the Soviets occupied his homeland. The family never went back.

His father’s predecessor in Rome was deported by the Soviets to Siberia, as were hundreds of thousands of Baltic citizens who opposed the takeover, Lozoraitis said.

Attracted by the ferment in the Baltic states, some 800 American students have come in groups to the legation this year, and Lozoraitis happily lectures them about his country and its prospects for independence.

″I tell them it’s ridiculous for the Soviets to keep us under oppression, when instead we could be friendly neighbors, prosperous trade partners, a sort of bridge to Western Europe,″ he said.

The Baltic states are generally more prosperous than other parts of the Soviet Union. ″We could be for Moscow what Hong Kong is for Beijing,″ he said.

The nearly 5 million Lithuanians have made great strides toward that goal in the past year, Lozoraitis said. ″Our 100 steps forward can’t be undone. They can push us back 10 steps, but not all the way.″

The Latvians too are proud, but also cautious. ″We can’t afford to forget the lessons of history,″ said John Lusis, First Secretary at the three-member Latvian Legation. The head of the legation, Anatol Dinbergs, is getting on in years and Lusis speaks for him.

Lusis is of a newer generation of Baltic diplomats who have never set foot in their homelands. He was born in Germany to Latvian parents and lived in Canada before coming here.

In the mid-1970s, the State Department recognized that replacements would be needed for the veteran Baltic diplomats. It agreed to grant the same diplomatic immunity and privileges to younger representatives as long as they were of Baltic descent and not U.S. citizens.

Lozoraitis, Lusis and the others carry Baltic diplomatic passports and say the travel documents are recognized by many countries, including China. Baltic missions also exist in Canada and England.

But the Soviet bloc is still off limits.

Lozoraitis hopes he can use his passport to go home one day. ″But right now, I still cannot accept going to the Russian embassy and asking them for a visa. Instead, they should be asking me for a visa to visit my own home.″