The overwhelming vote for independence in the Baltic republics should persuade the Kremlin to soften its opposition to their secession from the Soviet Union, Latvia's president said Monday.
In plebiscites Sunday in Latvia and Estonia, independence was favored by nearly three-fourths of voters. The referendums carry no legal weight but represent a challenge to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.Voters in Lithuania voted Feb. 9 in favor of secession.
Anatolijs Gorbunovs, president of the Latvian parliament, said the plebiscite would be an "additional argument" for the Kremlin to "correct its policy on the Baltic issue."
There was no immediate Kremlin reaction Monday to the results.
Estonian Foreign Minister Lennart Meri called the results "a clear and unequivocable expression of our political will," according to the Estonian news agency ETA.
A year ago, the Baltics began their struggle to reverse the Kremlin's 1940 annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The three republics were independent for 20 years between the world wars.
Ethnic Russians in the two republics joined ethnic Latvians and Estonians in urging secession, despite warnings from Moscow that the non-indigenous population would be second-class citizens if independence were approved.
The votes were little more than a public opinion poll, but officials had hoped for a strong pro-independence vote so the Baltics could march in step away from the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev, who branded illegal independence declarations last year by the Baltics, has scheduled a nationwide referendum for March 17 on holding together the 15 Soviet republics.
In Latvia, 73.6 percent voted in favor of separation and 24.7 percent voted against, election officials said. They said 88 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. In Estonia, 77.8 percent voted for independence, they said. Nearly 83 percent of the voters cast ballots, the officials said.