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Gorbachev Has Met His Match: History : Lithuania: The Soviet president was presented with a face-saving compromise, but conservative heat may have forced his iron fist.

<i> Alex Alexiev writes frequently about Soviet affairs</i>

In the early afternoon of March 7, a government plane with a single passenger aboard took off from Vilnius, Lithuania, and headed for Moscow. The passenger, Algirdas Brazauskas, leader of the Independent Communist Party of Lithuania, was scheduled to meet with President Mikhail S. Gorbachev at 4 p.m. His trip, endorsed by the entire Lithuanian leadership, was a last-ditch effort to avoid an open break with Moscow.

At their meeting, Brazauskas said the Lithuanians would refrain from declaring independence the following Sunday if Gorbachev promised to initiate serious negotiations leading to Lithuanian independence down the road. Gorbachev tersely refused the compromise proposal.

This virtually unknown episode debunks the conventional wisdom that the Lithuanians left Gorbachev no choice. As Moscow tightens the economic noose around the Baltic republic, the March 7 meeting also provides some important clues about the nature of the crisis and, beyond that, the increasingly explosive dynamics of high-level Soviet politics.

Why did Gorbachev reject Brazauskas’ offer? The Soviet leader may simply have misjudged Lithuanian determination. He may have wished to avoid setting a precedent that might trigger a separatist stampede. Or Gorbachev may have bowed to powerful conservative pressures against his policies.

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Although each of these factors probably played a role, conservative pressure may indeed have been the decisive one. In the past several months, there has been a veritable explosion of conservative anger at Gorbachev, now openly and routinely accused of destroying the Communist Party and the Soviet system. More ominously, the top military leadership has jumped into the fray with dire warnings of the unraveling of the Soviet state if current policies continue. They have also castigated Gorbachev’s arms-control and defense-cut measures and called for a crackdown on nationalist and separatist elements. Then last month the KGB issued an unprecedented admonition to the leadership that the fate of Soviet socialism itself is now at stake.

Gorbachev’s confrontational tactics in Lithuania have probably won him a reprieve from all the conservative carping. The zeal of the guardians of the old order to save socialism and empire in Lithuania is instructive. The hard-line commander of the Soviet army, Valentin Varennikov, was quickly dispatched to Vilnius. Without delay, he inflamed tensions and called for use of force. The KGB, meantime, churned out sinister anti-socialist plots, complete with devious Westerners and Lithuanians with dark Nazi pasts. Glasnost fell by the wayside and propaganda, disinformation and outright lies filled the media. The dreaded past, it seemed, had returned.

But the past is no longer, and Gorbachev’s gamble will prove a disastrous miscalculation. The Lithuanians have become even more united and determined to achieve their independence. Other potential separatists--in the western Ukraine, for example--are likely to decide that talking to Moscow is useless and thus unilateral action is their only option.

Gorbachev’s actions have stirred a wave of pro-Lithuania solidarity across the country that is sure to grow. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Tbilisi, Tashkent and elsewhere.

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Whatever the outcome of the crisis, Gorbachev, the politician, has already chalked up another failure. For millions of liberal-minded Soviet citizens, his implicit collusion with the military and the hard-liners is yet another sign that he is no longer their man, while his conservative enemies are unlikely to be appeased. What he apparently does not understand is that in Lithuania he is not fighting separatists and extremists, but history itself. The decolonization of empires, once set in motion, is irreversible. Nothing less is happening to the Soviet empire in Lithuania. Gorbachev cannot win.

Many in the West, including the Bush Administration, also do not seem to understand this. To them, the sole guarantee of stability is Gorbachev and his promise of perestroika . Anything that seems to stand in his way is seen as undesirable. A typical commentary in an American news magazine, for example, asserts that the Lithuanians’ struggle for independence shows a “lack of political wisdom” and that their supporters in Congress are “cheerleaders of tragedy.” President Bush’s main task is seen as “persuading Gorbachev to avert bloodshed.” Suppressing the Lithuanians by other means is evidently acceptable.

Such attitudes, though regrettable to hear from journalists, are inexcusable coming from the Administration. Yet Washington’s record in the crisis so far is not encouraging. The Administration’s refusal to take a principled stand, its passivity in the face of Moscow’s brutal pressure and its unseemly semantic acrobatics in trying to define violence in a way that does not apply to anything Gorbachev does--all are unbecoming of a great power. Far worse, they may result in greater violence by giving the impression of American indifference or even collusion with the Kremlin.

This impression, in fact, has already taken root, prompting stinging criticism of American policies by democratic elements in Moscow and elsewhere. Even before the emergence of the Lithuanian crisis, the Administration’s non-reaction to the massacres of nationalist demonstrators in Tbilisi and Baku, coupled with its general ambivalence toward the resurgent national independence movements, may have led the Kremlin to believe that Washington is keenly interested in the continuing survival of the Soviet empire, such as it has become, and would not support self-determination for any of its parts. Shortly after the summit meeting at Malta, in a major speech to the Central Committee, Gorbachev boldly stated that “foreign nations and politicians” understand that “the existence of a unitary, durable and powerful Soviet Union is an imperative necessity of the epoch” and claimed further that interest in the “preservation of the (Soviet) Union” . . . has been confirmed unequivocally in our contacts with the leaders of the largest states of the world, including those on whose support our domestic separatists count.”

Whether or not such assurances have, in fact, been given to the Soviet president, he seems to believe them. This is dangerous. It is imperative for Washington to understand that the days of the Soviet empire are numbered and that Gorbachev should be disabused of the notion that efforts to prop it up by force and blackmail will find sympathy in the West.

At stake is more than arms control and economic relations with Moscow, or indeed Gorbachev’s political future. Huge numbers of lives could be lost in a violent explosion triggered by the kind of misreading of history we are observing in Lithuania today.


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