Gorbachev OKs Secession Talks With Lithuania
Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev reached a tentative agreement Thursday with Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene of Lithuania on a basis for negotiations about the republic’s secession from the Soviet Union.
In the first real break in the prolonged Baltic crisis, Gorbachev agreed to open talks on Lithuania’s secession after the republic suspends all of the laws adopted since it unilaterally declared its independence March 11, Prunskiene told a news conference here.
Although Gorbachev again called on Lithuania to rescind its declaration of independence, Prunskiene said the central government will be satisfied with the suspension of its implementation and that this compromise will form the basis for negotiations.
As part of the compromise, Prunskiene said the central government will lift the economic sanctions, notably a halt in deliveries of oil and raw materials, that it imposed last month in an attempt to force Lithuania to rescind its declaration of independence.
Negotiations would follow immediately on the broad principles for Lithuania’s secession from the Soviet Union, according to Prunskiene, but “literally hundreds” of other issues would then have to be settled in talks that would continue for months before a final agreement is reached.
“We reached an understanding on what both sides are seeking,” the prime minister said. “We made a lot of progress toward preparations for negotiations, for future discussion of the issues, and we can say that these discussions have already begun since we have met for the first time.”
If the tentative agreement is confirmed, first by legislative action in Lithuania and then by the Soviet leadership in Moscow, the stalemate over independence not only for Lithuania but also for the neighboring Baltic republics of Estonia and Latvia will probably be broken.
Until Thursday, Gorbachev had refused to meet with the secessionist leaders of Lithuania or the other Baltic republics, and earlier in the day he had accused them of adventurism.
The crisis, a war of nerves from the outset, had begun to assume a frightening volatility in the republics, with conflicts between nationalists seeking independence and Russians wanting the region to remain within the Soviet Union.
It had also deepened the political turmoil in the Soviet Union as a whole, calling into question again Gorbachev’s leadership, and it held the potential for disrupting the measures under way to promote greater security and cooperation in Europe.
Returning from a one hour, 40-minute meeting at the Kremlin with Gorbachev and Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai I. Ryzhkov, Prunskiene said the talk at the outset reflected the hardened positions that each side had taken over the past two months but that it had eased significantly as compromises were found.
“We agreed to resolve this question proceeding from the present situation,” she said. “We concurred on what the way out of the situation was, though there were certain areas on which we did not agree. . . .
“We are talking about stopping the implementation of (the declaration of independence and subsequent legislation), but the representatives of the Soviet Union are for suspending them. If you look at it pragmatically, what does it all mean? A document has weight only to the extent that it is implemented.
“Our point of view is quite pragmatic. What bothers the Soviet Union is the implementation, and we are unilaterally stopping the implementation.”
But an account of the meeting by the official news agency Tass indicated that Gorbachev wanted greater concessions.
Reporting that Prunskiene had brought with her “certain proposals and suggestions regarding problems that have emerged as a result of unconstitutional actions” by Lithuania, Tass said they showed some movement but “still do not remove the main problem” by failing to repeal the declaration of independence.
“Prunskiene’s attention was drawn to the essential need for the Lithuanian Parliament to repeal or, at least, suspend that act and subsequent legislative documents that contradict the Soviet constitution,” Tass said.
“This decision will immediately pave the way for the discussion of issues that worry people inhabiting Lithuania and give rise to grave concern of Soviet republics and Soviet and world public opinion.”
Prunskiene said she will recommend to the Lithuanian Parliament that it suspend all the laws, numbering nearly 100, that it has enacted in the past two months to implement the declaration of independence and that this will be presented to Gorbachev for his approval.
She said she is drafting a resolution based on her discussion with Gorbachev and Ryzhkov for debate by the Lithuanian Supreme Council, the republic’s Parliament, at a special session Saturday. The measure was approved in principle Wednesday when the body gave Prunskiene a mandate for her talks with Gorbachev. She added that a negotiating team would then be quickly chosen and that she would head it.
“This is a very important question,” she said of the compromise proposal and the need to get full negotiations under way, “and it has to be decided quickly because it has many ramifications.”
Because of the Soviet economic embargo, Lithuania has perhaps only a week’s supply of oil left, according to officials in Vilnius, the republic’s capital, and the republic is facing potential economic collapse.
Prunskiene reiterated that the declaration itself would not be rescinded or withdrawn. “The independence, as it was proclaimed, was not questioned,” she said. “We heard about the need for the suspension of this or that act, but there was no question of our right of self-determination.”
Lithuania, along with Estonia and Latvia, was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940 as a result of an agreement with Nazi Germany to partition Eastern Europe. It had enjoyed 22 years of independence following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution after centuries under Russian or Polish rule.
Prunskiene had just returned from a tour of Western capitals, including Washington, London, Paris and Bonn, and the compromise largely follows the proposal put forward in April by French President Francois Mitterrand and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and supported by President Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
She is scheduled to meet today with Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who is discussing arms control and other issues with Soviet officials in advance of Gorbachev’s trip to the United States at the end of this month.
Describing the start of the talks between Lithuania and Soviet authorities as “a qualitative change” in the situation, a senior State Department official with Baker said the secretary of state would make clear U.S. support for the dialogue when he meets with Gorbachev this morning.
Baker had already warned that improved economic ties, including granting the Soviet Union most-favored-nation trading status and the lower tariffs this brings, would depend on the early and peaceful resolution of the Lithuanian crisis.
The United States, Prunskiene said, has been “positive and very supportive” in Lithuania’s attempt to open a dialogue with Moscow.
In Washington, Bush Administration officials said they welcomed Gorbachev’s decision to meet with Prunskiene.
“We have been calling for a dialogue between Moscow and the Baltic leaders and, to the extent that this means a dialogue is beginning, it’s a good thing,” one official said. “But we don’t know yet how significant it is.”
But Prunskiene was less reticent to assess the significance:
“The fact that both sides narrowed their differences and that the talks were held for the first time with the prime minister and the president are big steps,” she said. “President Gorbachev himself confirmed this explicitly, saying that we had met, discussed the issues and made progress from our previous positions. This was a big step forward.”