President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, facing the likelihood of losing his fight to hold the Soviet Union together, responded cautiously Monday to Lithuania's unprecedented declaration of independence, calling it "rather alarming" but adding that the Kremlin will study the issue before reacting.
Gorbachev gave no sign that Moscow will deviate from previous promises not to use military force to quash nationalist movements among the country's more than 100 ethnic groups, and another senior Politburo member pointedly ruled out sending troops into the rebellious republic.
"We will not use force," leading conservative Yegor K. Ligachev told reporters at the Congress of People's Deputies in Moscow. "Tanks will not help in this matter. We must resolve this by political means."
Gorbachev clearly was carefully weighing his reaction, knowing that how the Kremlin responds to Lithuania is likely to affect the future of the entire country. Less than 24 hours after Lithuanian deputies approved a resolution asserting the republic's sovereignty, there were already signs that the action has emboldened independence movements in other republics.
In Lithuania itself, the mood was serious rather than celebratory a day after the historic decision. Activists said they know that possible retribution and a long period of negotiations with Moscow lie in store, particularly over the economic terms for the republic's break from the Soviet Union 50 years after it was forcibly annexed.
The Lithuanian Parliament in the capital of Vilnius drafted a letter to Gorbachev appealing to him to recognize the Baltic republic's statehood and begin negotiations about the terms of restoring independence.
In a high point of the day for the newly independent republic, its president, Vytautus Landsbergis, drew loud applause when he announced in the Lithuanian Parliament that its declaration of sovereignty has been recognized by Australia.
The governments of the other two Baltic republics, Latvia and Estonia, sent Lithuania's new leadership telegrams congratulating them for the declaration, and in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, a popularly elected congress on Sunday appealed to the United Nations for help in breaking away from Moscow.
In Washington, the White House issued a statement urging the Soviet government to "negotiate the sovereign rights" of Lithuania. But it made no statement directly recognizing the republic's independence.
Saying the United States never acknowledged the "forcible incorporation" of Lithuania into the Soviet Union in 1940 in the first place, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said he believes Washington is showing "exactly the right measure of support for a process that will produce the desired effect."
But the American reaction displeased both Soviet officials and Lithuanian activists who had been hoping for outright recognition. In Moscow, Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady I. Gerasimov condemned the U.S. statement.
"Let that declaration be on the conscience of the American Administration," he told reporters. "If other countries begin trying to tell us what to do, it can only be considered as interference in the internal affairs of our country."
A stern-looking Gorbachev, speaking beneath a giant mural of Soviet founder V. I. Lenin at the start of a special session of the Congress of People's Deputies in Moscow, signaled his refusal to recognize Lithuania's break with the union--the first such splintering since the Soviet Union was created in 1922, five years after the Bolshevik Revolution.
He pointedly referred to Lithuania as a Soviet socialist republic instead of by the new name, the Republic of Lithuania, approved by deputies in Vilnius on Sunday night.
"The decisions which are being taken there affect the fundamental interests and destiny of the republic itself, its people and our entire state," Gorbachev said during brief opening remarks to the Congress, which was convened in Moscow to consider constitutional amendments aimed at increasing the power of the president.
Gorbachev told the Congress that parliamentary committees in conjunction with the government will begin immediate studies of the implications of the move and then "assess and take decisions" on Lithuania's action.
"So far, we do not have the official documents of the decisions which that session has already adopted," Gorbachev said. But he added: "The information coming in from there is rather alarming."
Deputy Georgy Shakhnazarov, a Gorbachev aide, said in an interview with Interfax, a publication of Radio Moscow, that he thought the national Congress could have the power to overturn Lithuania's secession vote, although he did not say whether such a move was in the offing.
Activists in Vilnius were keeping a close eye on developments in Moscow.
"Yes, I have concerns and fears," Ceslovas Jursenas, a deputy and political commentator for Lithuanian Television, said in an interview. "My vision of independence was to have gone more slowly and to be better prepared for it.
"We have a thousand ties with the Soviet Union, and now all of a sudden we have broken them," he said. "We must carefully attend to the economic problems (of declaring independence) because otherwise thousands of people will suffer and this will reflect very badly on what we have done."
Gorbachev has indicated he will demand repayment of the billions of rubles invested in Lithuania's infrastructure, and Moscow has hinted it will begin charging the republic world prices in hard currency for Soviet raw materials, prices that are likely to be out of the reach of the republic.
For their part, Lithuanian leaders have argued they will prepare their own bill based on reparations due for Soviet use of the republic's land and the deportations of tens of thousands of Lithuanians to Siberia as forced labor.
But in practical terms, activists acknowledge privately, the question of economic survival for Lithuania must be resolved in conjunction with Moscow before the republic can truly embark on an independent future.
"How soon we can implement this law depends not only on us," acknowledged Landsbergis, the first non-Communist to serve as head of a republic in Soviet history. "We have to sit down at the table. We're not going to be beating our fists, but we have to start settling accounts."
Landsbergis, founder of the two-year-old grass-roots Sajudis movement that has led Lithuania's independence drive, expressed disappointment that the reaction from Moscow was so "laconic."
The letter the Lithuanian Parliament drafted to Gorbachev read in part: "We expect that you personally and the leadership of the Soviet Union will understand our decision and that the U.S.S.R. will recognize our independent republic.
"We ask you to consider this appeal as our official suggestion to the Soviet Union to begin negotiations to regulate all problems resulting from the recent changes. We expect especially that great attention will be paid to the security of Lithuanian youths at present in the armed forces of the U.S.S.R.," the statement said.
In fact, one deputy told the Lithuanian Parliament, young Lithuanians began deserting the Soviet army on Sunday as the declaration of independence was approved in Vilnius, and military police were pursuing them into the republic.
Vladas Shadreyka, chairman of the republic's lawyers union, gave no figures for the number of desertions from the official total of 50,000 Lithuanians currently in the Soviet army but said his telephone lines were jammed all last night by anxious parents whose sons had left their units.
The republic's Parliament appointed a committee to investigate and consider seeking immunity for the deserting troops.
Free-lance writer Esther Schrader, in Vilnius, contributed to this report.
LITHUANIA AT A GLANCE
Government: Lithuania, as the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, has been dominated by the Soviet Union since the end of World War II.
Led by the popular movement called Sajudis, nationalist sentiments became intense last year, leading to free elections in February and culminating with Sunday's 124-0 vote by Parliament to revert to an independent state--the Lithuanian Republic.
The People: Ethnic Lithuanians make up about 80% of the republic's population of 3.7 million. Major minority groups include: Russians, 8.6%; Poles, 7.7%, and Byelorussians, 1.5%. Others include Jews and Latvians.
Geography: With a landmass of 25,170 square miles, about the size of West Virginia, Lithuania is bounded on the west by the Baltic Sea and Poland. It lies south of Latvia and north and west of Byelorussia.
Economy: Lithuania was predominately agricultural before World War II. Industrial development began under the Soviets, with rapid growth in production of metal products, such as machine tools and household appliances. Today, the republic is a major Soviet supplier of radio, TV and tape-recording equipment.
History: Lithuanian tribes united in the 13th Century and created a powerful medieval state. Its royalty joined with that of Poland in the 14th Century and formed a union that lasted 400 years. With the fall of the Lithuanian/Polish government in the 1700s, Lithuania came under the rule of the Russian czar. Rebellions failed in 1831 and 1863.
After the Russian Revolution in 1905, elected representatives demanded self-government within the Russian state. Their demands were rejected.
Germany occupied the country during World War I. A period of independence followed the war and lasted until 1940, when Soviet troops occupied the country. German occupation followed until 1944, when the Soviet army recaptured the area.