The Lithuanian Communist Party declared independence on Wednesday from the parent Soviet Communist Party in a historic move that could foreshadow the break-up of the party that has ruled the Soviet Union since 1917.
After two days of often-heated debate, the delegates to a special party congress voted, 855-160, to transform their party into "an independent political organization with its own program and statutes," with the goal of re-establishing Lithuania as a democratic and independent state.
The delegates called for a new relationship with the Soviet party on "the basis of affinity of the strategic goals of perestroika, " but no longer taking direction from Moscow on any issue.
The vote was a major political blow to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who is facing mounting conservative opposition over his broad political and economic reforms and who repeatedly called upon the Lithuanian Communists not to vote for the break and so increase pressure on him.
The central leadership in Moscow is now likely to face similar challenges from other restive Soviet republics, including Armenia, Georgia, Estonia and Latvia, and tense ethnic relations may be exacerbated in some parts of the country.
Although Gorbachev is promoting the development of a new governmental system for the Soviet Union based on federalism, he has insisted on a unified party under a strong central leadership, warning that a federalized party would quickly collapse into competing nationalist groups unable to formulate policies for the country as a whole.
But Lithuanian Communists argued during the debate that, if they remained a part of the Soviet party, they would lose the forthcoming republic-wide and local elections to new parties that have recently emerged here. Independence, they argued, is their only hope of retaining power--and this probably only in a coalition government.
Algirdas Brazauskas, the first secretary of the Lithuanian party, who had engineered its transformation, welcomed the vote but called on his party to be "always resolute, rejuvenated and ready for new battles" in implementing and defending the decision.
While the resolution looks ahead to some form of Lithuanian independence, Kazimiera-Danute Prunskiene, a leading Lithuanian economist, argued that if Lithuania is going to exercise its new economic autonomy, it needs its own party now.
"How can we manage to achieve economic sovereignty if one of the parties, the Communist Party, is subordinated to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which contains so many reactionary forces opposed to our economic independence?" she said.
The party leadership fought through the day against a counter-resolution calling on Lithuanian Communists to remain within the parent party and to work to reform it.
"This is saying that we would be like a sovereign little fish in the belly of a whale," one prominent party member, Antanas Cekuolis, said, deriding the whole concept.
But about a sixth of the delegates, mostly Russians and Poles along with a group of 40 military officers, bitterly opposed the Lithuanian move.
"This statement means that we are resigning from the Soviet Communist Party and leaving it," Vladimir Shved, a party leader from Vilnius said. "In effect, we are saying we do not believe the Soviet Communist Party will rejuvenate itself, will restructure itself. But some of us do believe in its renewal, though this is not a popular view here today."
Stefania Serzhantovich, a tractor driver from a collective farm outside Vilnius, told the congress, "I believe that the creation of this kind of independent Lithuanian Communist Party will mean its annihilation."
And a Russian, speaking from the floor, demanded, "Can a party that does not mention communism in its program be called Communist?"
As the debate raged, its ferocity and length not diminished in the least by the probable outcome, an army officer from the Lithuanian city of Kaunas told the other delegates, "I am surprised that some have so much venom for people who are not enemies, and I do not believe that Lithuania needs enemies."
But the mood was not one of compromise.
After a lengthy assault by Russian delegates on the proposals, a prominent Lithuanian writer, Raimondas Kasauskas, told them, "We have been forced by the minority to debate this long enough, and I cannot imagine that we will find a compromise solution with any of them."
Oddly, some of the most heated words were exchanged over the question of whether the resolution would be adopted by a roll call vote, as most of the Lithuanian delegates wanted, or by secret ballot, as the Russians demanded, saying that they feared reprisals.
"Why should we make lists of people to be persecuted?" asked tractor driver Serzhantovich. "Speaking as a representative of the workers, I say 'Let the vote be secret.' "
Even Brazauskas urged that those who wanted to hide their votes be protected, but the delegates reaffirmed by the same 5-to-1 majority their decision that a roll-call vote be published.
"We want to reach this new Lithuania with open hearts and open souls," one delegate argued. "If we vote behind closed doors, people will not know what kind of Communists we are."
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