The Parliament of the Soviet republic of Lithuania enacted legislation Friday intended to permit a referendum on independence from the Soviet Union.
The new law permits the Parliament to call a referendum on major issues, including self-determination. A referendum must also be held if demanded by petitions signed by more than 300,000 people.
The Parliament also adopted legislation, certain to be controversial, that establishes a separate Lithuanian citizenship and moves Lithuania away from the highly centralized Soviet federation.
All 3.7 million of the republic's residents would be Lithuanian citizens, whether they are ethnic Lithuanians, Russians or Poles. However, those moving to Lithuania in the future would not become citizens for 10 years, a waiting period intended to curb migration and keep the republic 80% ethnic Lithuanian.
In addition, the Parliament approved a constitutional amendment explicitly guaranteeing Lithuanians freedom of conscience. It includes the right to practice religion and prohibits interference in religious activities.
The amendment is intended to open the way for religion classes for children and later, perhaps, for the reestablishment of parochial schools that would come under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church.
Sajudis, Lithuania's nationalist political movement, had campaigned for the referendum legislation in order to lay the basis for what many hope will be restoration of the republic's independence. The Soviet Union incorporated Lithuania and the neighboring states of Estonia and Latvia in World War II.
"This means there will be a referendum on Lithuanian independence," Lionginas Vasilauskas, a Sajudis spokesman, said in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. "It will come in good time. The ground has been prepared, the laws are in place and we will be ready."
Although there is widespread sentiment for independence in the three Baltic republics, political leaders there have tried to avoid provoking the central government with moves that might be seen as an immediate threat to secede from the Soviet Union.
Debate, in fact, continues on what "self-determination" means in the Baltic republics and what it might bring.
Many activists envision total independence from the Soviet Union and restoration of the republics' prewar status. More moderate politicians urge development of a new relationship with the Soviet Union, by treaty or some other agreement, taking into account political and economic realities.
Lithuania has been moving to define what self-determination will mean there. In September, the Lithuanian Parliament declared the republic's 1940 incorporation into the Soviet Union to be invalid because it was based on a resolution forced through Parliament at that time "absolutely against the will of the citizens of Lithuania."
The Lithuanian Communist Party, which is struggling to hold onto power in the face of the strong challenge from Sajudis, will discuss at its congress next month a proposal to break from the Soviet Communist Party and establish itself as an independent party. Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has warned that such moves endanger the political unity of the Soviet Union and that he will oppose them.
Algirdas Brazauskas, first secretary of the Lithuanian Communist Party, said earlier this week in Vilnius that the republic's transition to economic autonomy next year requires corresponding political moves as well.
"Far from all Lithuanian Communists support moves of this kind," Brazauskas said in a radio interview, "but we will try to steer clear of a split in the party."