The overwhelming support of the people of Latvia and Estonia in elections calling for independence from the Soviet Union was not exactly a surprise, although the margin of victory raised some eyebrows. And it has not made Mikhail Gorbachev's job any easier.

Whether the vote will lead to real Baltic independence remains a question. The real decisions will not be made at the ballot box, but in the Kremlin's halls of power and will depend on who holds the power.In the long run, the decision will revolve less around the desires of Baltic citizens and more around the possible impact that successful Baltic secession might have on other restless Soviet states.

Given opposition from the Kremlin - Gorbachev branded the Baltic independence movements "illegal" last year - the Latvia and Estonia vote carried no legal weight and was more of an opinion poll than anything else.

In both elections, the turnout was heavy, nearly nine out of every 10 eligible voters. And the results - 77 percent in Latvia and 78 percent in Estonia favoring independence - guarantee that the question of Baltic sovereignty is not going to fade away.

Most surprising item in the election returns was the support the independence issue received from significant Russian minorities living in the two Baltic states - 33 percent of Latvia's people are Russians and 28 percent of Estonia's population is Russian.

The independence question even won approval in the Latvian city of Daugavpils where ethnic Latvians make up only 12 percent of residents. This undercuts Gorbachev's argument that Russians living in the Baltic states don't really want secession.

With the election results in hand, both Latvia and Estonia have now joined Lithuania in demanding that their pre-World War II independence be returned to them. Unlike other East bloc nations that were simply occupied by Soviet soldiers during and after the war, the Baltics were annexed into the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev is holding onto the Baltics because he is afraid if he lets them go, the entire Soviet Union will collapse. Others of the 15 Soviets republics - including some of the largest, wealthiest, most industrialized and most geographically important - may try to secede as well.

Sympathy for the Baltic states is strong in the United States, yet America and others in the West surely must appreciate the dilemma those tiny republics pose for Gorbachev.

The Baltic states may be small and their cry for freedom clear-cut, but the future of the entire Soviet Union could depend on how Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia fare in their admirable drive for independence.