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"It's exciting, isn't it?"

That was John Skujins' reaction to Friday's vote by the Latvian Supreme Soviet to declare itself independent from the Soviet Union.Skujins escaped Latvia in 1944 as the Russian Front collapsed, and he came to the United States as a displaced person in 1949. He served in the Korean War and has been a professor at Utah State University since 1969, where he teaches soil biochemistry.

He is one of about a dozen ethnic Latvians who live in Utah and 100,000 or so who live in the United States.

He makes frequent visits to his homeland on business and thinks he might go again this year. He closely follows Latvian newspapers and remains in contact with Latvian-American organizations.

Skujins said he is encouraged and heartened by the vote to secede.

The main difference between Latvia's declaration and Lithuania's is that Latvia has included provisions for a gradual change of authority.

In an interview Saturday, Skujins talked of his country's background and the possibility for it to successfully secede from the Soviet Union.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are three Soviet Republics that border the Baltic Sea. They share a common heritage and were independent states before they were forcibly annexed into the Soviet Union in 1939-40.

But the three are significantly different in their histories. And Latvia, in particular, faces problems with ethnic Russians who live in the republic and don't favor breaking away from the Soviet Union.

Latvia and Estonia share common cultural influences over the past millennium. They were converted to Christianity by Germanic knights. They became Lutheran countries and were part of the Swedish Kingdom for 150 years. Then, they were forcibly pulled into Russia by Peter the Great in the 18th Century.

Lithuania, however, has historically been an independent country, was long linked with Poland and is Catholic. But Latvia's language is more like Lithuania's than like Estonia's, Skujins said.

An important key to whether the Baltic States will be allowed to eventually secede is whether the Soviet Union gives up its imperialist tradition. "Russian imperialism will always want the Baltic states under them," he said.

Taking a chapter from Peter's book, Stalin forcibly annexed the Baltic states as part of the mutual non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in 1939. Then, he industrialized the states. When the republics didn't have enough workers, he sent ethnic Russians to work in factories.

Skujins said Lithuania is about 15 percent Russian, Estonia is about 30 percent Russian and Latvia is 45 percent Russian.

Despite the high numbers of Russians in the republic, 70 percent of the parliament voted to secede.

Skujins said he finds that support "very pleasant to see and very reassuring of the future."