Lithuania Warned by Gorbachev : Independence Bid Has Gone Too Far, Local Leaders Told

Times Staff Writer

President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, abandoning his policy of strict non-interference in the way local party leaders deal with nationalist activities, interrupted his Black Sea vacation to warn Lithuanian Communist Party officials that the independence drive in that Baltic republic had gone too far, an activist said Monday.

The warning was made in a telephone call to Lithuania's party leader, Algidas K. Brazauskas, and then passed on to local leaders of Sajudis, the Lithuanian independence movement, the activist said.

Also Monday, the Soviet Communist Party, at loggerheads with increasingly strident nationalists across the country, accelerated its campaign against independence movements, striking out at Moldavia, where the republic's Parliament is to consider a law today that would make Moldavian the official language.

Harder Line

So far, the Soviet leadership has sought to influence citizens of the various republics with words alone. But in recent days, the words have become tougher, and some analysts say the Kremlin may be laying the groundwork for direct intervention--possibly the arrest of nationalist leaders or a shake-up of local party organizations.

Gorbachev spoke by telephone Sunday to Brazauskas, a Brazauskas aide said, declining to elaborate.

A spokesman for Sajudis, Romaldus Ozolus, said Brazauskas met Monday with Sajudis leaders and told them that "Gorbachev is concerned about what's happening in Lithuania--that what had happened so far was worth supporting but that now we'd gone too far."

Previously, the Soviet party had taken a conciliatory stance as the republics felt their way under Gorbachev's policies of openness and reform. For example, the Kremlin stood by quietly as language laws similar to the proposed Moldavian measure were enacted earlier this year in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Muted Criticism

Until recently, the Kremlin generally refrained from criticizing the popular front movements formed in many republics to give ethnic minorities a political voice. The aim was to persuade leaders in the republics that they could achieve their goals without seceding from the Soviet Union, a step that is permitted, in theory, by the Soviet constitution.

But now, clearly feeling threatened by growing cries for independence, Moscow has decided to speak out decisively against the nationalist moves.

"Moscow has changed its tactics and seems to be preparing the way for harsher actions against nationalists," one Western analyst said, forecasting a possible shake-up of Communist Party bosses in some of the more active republics.

But the analyst said the Soviet leadership will probably delay any major action until after the Supreme Soviet, the national Parliament, convenes next month.

"To act without some kind of a mandate would seriously undermine Gorbachev's reform program internally," he said.

In Kennebunkport, Me., where he is on vacation, President Bush appeared to send a signal to the Soviets advocating restraint.

Asked if he feared that recent hard-line statements could presage a crackdown against opposition groups in the Baltics, Bush declared: "I hope not." In a brief question-and-answer session with reporters, he went on to praise the restraint and "understanding" that Gorbachev had shown in his response to developments this month in Poland, where the first non-Communist government in the East Bloc since World War II was formed.

Meanwhile, the change in Moscow's mood was reflected Monday in an article in Pravda, the official organ of the party, which lashed out at supporters of the language law in Moldavia and warned that if deputies there pass such a law, their votes would signal support for "ethnic strife, the isolation of Moldavia and disruption of its ties with other republics."

'Nationalist Hysteria'

Soviet television accused leaders of the independent popular front movement in Moldavia of whipping up "nationalist hysteria."

The article in Pravda and the television report followed a party Central Committee statement Saturday night--the first sign of the new tough stance--warning that nationalists in the Baltic states are pushing the region toward the precipice.

Nationalist activists in the Baltic republics have said they will not stop their independence campaigns, but they acknowledge that the position taken by the Central Committee is cause for concern.

"All we are trying to do is run our own affairs and speak our own language in our own country, and they call us extremists," Janis Jurkens, a spokesman for the Latvian popular front, said. "We are very worried that the tanks may roll in."

Moldavians, in a movement led by writers, have organized periodic demonstrations since March, calling on the republic's legislature to enact a law that would make the Romanian-like language official and replace Cyrillic script with the Roman letters that were used before the Soviet Union annexed the region in 1940.

300,000 at Rally

About 300,000 Moldavians demonstrated Sunday in the capital of Kishinev. Other rallies took place Monday, according to Soviet television, which said the Moldavians chanted "No to the Russian language!"

Moldavians complain that their language has been reduced to a "kitchen-table language." Before the Gorbachev era, people who spoke it ran the risk of being labeled anti-Soviet.

Moldavians make up about 64% of the republic's 4.2 million people but are outnumbered in many major cities, where Russian is widely spoken.

Pravda, in an article headlined "Twenty-Four Hours to Decide," warned that Moldavia's citizens are being "blinded by nationalism." It said that activists from Moldavia's popular front movement are "people who, hiding behind the screen of reform, are pursuing personal ambitions and are trying to gain power on the crest of a dirty wave of chauvinism and separatism."

The newspaper also took aim at local Communist Party officials. It said the secretary of the republic's Communist Party Central Committee, Ivan T. Gutsu, and his followers "are not giving a proper rebuff to these nationalist sentiments."

Instead, they have, "in an amazingly unanimous effort," criticized ethnic Russians who have been striking for a week to protest against the proposed language law, it said.

Communist Party officials in Moldavia, the Baltic republics and others where ethnic strife has erupted are caught in a dilemma, however: The Kremlin has said that unless they win local elections, they may face ouster from the party; but to win elections, they must appeal to their constituents by echoing the growing nationalism.

Meanwhile, an ethnic Russian who is a spokesman for the Moldavian strike committee, identified by Pravda as P. Skrepchenko, told the newspaper there would have been no strike if leaders of the republic had agreed to recognize Russian as the inter-ethnic language while making Moldavian the official language.

"But we were just ignored," Skrepchenko said. "Neither the Moldavian Communist Party Central Committee nor the Supreme Soviet understood our anxiety."

Times staff writer David Lauter, in Kennebunkport, Me., contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World