ANALYSIS : Will Gorbachev's Reforms Bring Breakup of Nation?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Who lost Lithuania?

That question is bound to arise if Lithuania secedes from the Soviet Union as desired, and with it will come tougher, more fundamental questions about the ultimate impact of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's liberalizing reforms.

In permitting the upsurge of ethnic nationalism and then not suppressing secessionist drives, has Gorbachev not created conditions for the breakup of the whole Soviet Union? If Lithuania goes, what will bind Latvia and Estonia, the two other Baltic republics, Azerbaijan or Georgia in the south, Moldavia on the Romanian border, or the Ukraine?

In withdrawing the Communist Party from day-to-day management of the government and the economy, and then accepting a multi-party political system, first of all in Lithuania, has Gorbachev not stripped the party of its authority and even its legitimacy? Will the party's decision to yield its monopoly on power not bring its downfall?

What will Gorbachev's reforms have achieved if the Soviet Union has been left in political chaos and dismembered as a state? And would his liberalism survive such developments?

Gorbachev's political survival will undoubtedly depend on his ability to defend himself from these and other charges that his policies have brought the collapse of the Soviet Union as a superpower and as the leader of world socialism.

He has long argued that the country's multiple political, economic and social crises are the result of its prolonged stagnation under the late President Leonid I. Brezhnev and the "deformation" of socialism that occurred earlier, notably under dictator Josef Stalin.

Glasnost, or political openness, may have brought suppressed problems to the surface, Gorbachev has contended, but it did not create them. And without such openness, they could not be solved.

In Gorbachev's view, Lithuania's complaints--starting with its forced incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1940 under a deal between Stalin and Adolf Hitler, the leader of Nazi Germany--only confirm the need for radical political and economic reforms, including the establishment of a new federal system for the Soviet Union.

But such arguments run counter to the temper of the times and receive less and less of a hearing here.

Confidence in perestroika, as Gorbachev's reforms are known, is declining, according to all recent opinion surveys here. After five years under his leadership, the country has grown increasingly impatient, and the mood is one of growing pessimism.

The belief in liberalism that grew in the first three or four years of perestroika has given way to the conviction that a "strong hand," even "an iron rod," is needed to bring the country to order and ensure progress.

In this political atmosphere, many would interpret Lithuania's decision to secede from the Soviet Union as the first step in the dismemberment of the country--and evidence that perestroika is consequently failing.

The apparently analogous loss of Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union's buffer with the West might have been a major political and military setback--Moscow contended that it was not--but the psychological impact was relatively small since most people here, in fact, welcomed those changes.

Lithuania's secession is different. This is Soviet territory that would be lost, and it is Soviet security that will be directly diminished by this gap in its defenses. This is Soviet socialism that was overwhelmingly rejected in Lithuania's parliamentary elections, and this is Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet reformer, whose vision of a better future for the country inspires no hope in Lithuania.

Lithuania's secession, in this context, would have the effect of validating the criticism of Gorbachev and perestroika that is accumulating so steadily. And, with discussion about a possible military takeover now relatively commonplace in Moscow and other Soviet cities, though such talk is totally speculative, the question would be whether the army--were it to replace the party in running the country--would have tolerated the secession.

The point is not that Lithuania, with its 3.6 million people, would be such a great loss for the Soviet Union, whose population is now nearly 290 million, nor that the small republic's agricultural output and production of electronic goods are essential to the Soviet economy.

Nor is the point that perestroika hinges on the future of Lithuania. The crucial test for Gorbachev's reforms remains that of the shop shelves: how soon perestroika will improve the supplies of food and consumer goods, how soon it will redeem its promises of a better life.

What Lithuania would become in its secession is a point of acute political vulnerability on which Gorbachev would have difficulty defending himself. His low-key response Monday to the Lithuanian action--criticism and then a call for legislative assessment--reflected his need not to focus attention on the likely breakup of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev himself, however, had told the Lithuanians during a visit there in January that his fate was now tied to their decision on whether to remain part of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet leader's options are few.

At considerable political risk, he had committed his prestige in December to an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the Lithuanians not to quit. He has offered them maximum autonomy, political as well as economic, within a restructured federal system. He has borrowed many of their ideas for reforms for the country as a whole. He has met repeatedly with Lithuanian Communist Party officials and other leaders from the republic.

The failure of these efforts has already diminished his political position, and further inducements appear likely to fail.

Gorbachev has tried more recently to discourage Lithuania with demands that it repay about $34 billion in investments and other debts to central government if it leaves. He has warned that trade between Lithuania and the Soviet Union would have to be put on a dollar basis at terms unfavorable to Lithuania. And he has even talked of those wanting to retain their Soviet citizenship leaving Lithuania, and Lithuanians in the Soviet Union being asked to move back.

Lithuanians feel that he might use the greater powers that he is likely to receive later this week as the Soviet Union's first executive president to declare a state of emergency, suspend the new Lithuanian government and take over administration of the republic himself.

This would probably help restore Gorbachev's domestic image as a strong, resolute and decisive leader, one able to cope with the array of crises confronting the country.

Short of force, however, Gorbachev has little leverage, certainly not to bring a total Lithuanian retreat, and he long ago ruled out the use of force in favor of political solutions to the country's problems.

Gorbachev also seems to lack the will to take such action, even though the political cost to him of Lithuania's secession might be even greater than the criticism he would encounter abroad if he intervenes.

This leaves him pursuing his economic reforms at a faster pace in anticipation that they will soon show results here, promoting his political reforms in the hope that somehow they will satisfy both right and left and--using Lithuania as an object lesson--accelerating the restructuring of the Soviet Union's federal system.

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