Lithuania's Parliament has formally moved to reclaim the national independence stolen by the Soviet Union half a century ago. Now begins the complex and unprecedented process to make that claim a reality. Much will be riding on it, not least, perhaps, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's own political future.
Very much at issue as well is how the superpower relationship will fare in light of this and other secessionist threats. Washington has consistently and properly supported self-determination for the three Baltic republics seized by the Soviets in 1940. It still does. Now, though, U.S. policy-makers have to take care that their expressions of sympathy are not perceived as helping to foment the dissolution of the Soviet empire.
The White House's initial response was the right one. It called on Moscow to respect the democratic will of Lithuania's citizens, it called on Lithuania to safeguard the rights of the 20% of its population that is not Lithuanian, it asked for immediate and constructive negotiations on the demand for sovereignty. Gorbachev could conceivably try to bring the secession movement to a screeching halt by invoking the emergency executive powers the Soviet Parliament is expected to vest in the presidency. That, though, seems unlikely. Gorbachev has already accepted in principle Lithuania's right to secede. He can only try now to delay that event for as long as he can.
Delay won't be entirely artificial. It's going to take time to de-colonize Lithuania, to redefine the extensive economic and military relationships that have developed. As one tactic of delay Gorbachev threatens to hand Lithuania a bill for $34 billion--payable only in hard currency, please--to offset the supposed benefits of 50 years of Soviet occupation. The response from Vilnius is: Do that, and we'll present an even bigger bill for the hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians shipped off to forced labor in Siberia. Once this kind of game-playing is over, the real negotiations on separation--and on necessary future economic ties--can begin.
Some Lithuanians optimistically expect full separation by year's end. A more realistic timetable might measure the process in years rather than months. The important thing for Lithuania and its sister independence-minded Baltic republics, Estonia and Latvia, is that the rectification of a great historical wrong is now in sight. In the parliament building in Vilnius on Sunday, Lithuanians replaced the Soviet hammer and sickle with their ancient national emblem of a spear-carrying mounted knight. Lithuania is reasserting its heritage, even as it girds to regain its sovereignty.