Lithuanians Give In, Agree to Moratorium
The would-be independent nation of Lithuania, ground down by Kremlin economic sanctions and months of pressure, gave in Friday to Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and agreed to suspend its independence declaration for 100 days if talks begin with Moscow.
“Two years ago, we chose the peaceful route to independence, the route of negotiations,” President Vytautas Landsbergis told the Parliament of his small Baltic land as he reversed position and urged adoption of the largely symbolic measure. “Now the condition for negotiations is a moratorium.”
Formerly, Lithuania’s leaders said the unilateral proclamation of independence adopted by the Parliament on March 11 was untouchable. By voting 69-35 for a conditional suspension, they yielded to a key demand from Gorbachev and acknowledged that Lithuania, a Soviet republic for 50 years, was still something less than totally sovereign and independent.
“Seeking negotiations does not mean a retreat--it means a step forward to independence,” Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene, one of the original advocates of a moratorium, said during the often heated Parliament debate that began Thursday and ran for nine hours.
There was no immediate reaction in Moscow to the vote by Lithuania’s Supreme Council, as the Parliament is called, but it seemed a clear-cut victory for Gorbachev, who is also faced with governments in the neighboring Baltic republics of Latvia and Estonia that are bent on independence, as well as rising demands for autonomy from minority groups throughout the country.
By forcing the Lithuanians to backtrack, Gorbachev made them an example for other restive ethnic groups and dramatically reasserted his personal authority, which is expected to be under fierce attack from hard-line Communists and radicals at a national party congress that opens Monday.
According to officials in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, the deal offering a moratorium in exchange for the opening of negotiations was worked out at two meetings between Gorbachev and Landsbergis earlier in the week, as both sides searched for an end to the standoff.
It was not certain, however, whether the 100-day period would be enough to satisfy the Soviet leader.
The document adopted by the Supreme Council says “the independent Lithuanian state, seeking bilateral negotiations between the republic of Lithuania and the U.S.S.R., declares from the start of negotiations, a unilateral 100-day moratorium on the act of March 11, 1990, suspending all legal action arising from this act.”
The March declaration, passed by the Supreme Council after little debate, had proclaimed the restoration of the independence Lithuania enjoyed between the world wars and before Soviet dictator Josef Stalin engineered its annexation by the Kremlin in 1940.
Gorbachev, who has pledged to oppose the breakup of the Soviet Union, denounced the March declaration as illegal and hence invalid, and deployed an array of pressure tactics to bring the government of the Ireland-size republic to heel.
Soviet troops seized some government and Communist Party buildings in Vilnius, and armored columns rumbled through the streets with the evident aim of showing residents that Moscow had the means of reasserting control.
In April, the central government shut off all shipments of crude oil and most of the natural gas to the resource-poor republic. In the 10 weeks since, about 50,000 workers have reportedly lost their jobs, and Landsbergis has said the economy has suffered $173 million in losses.
Prunskiene told Parliament that it had to agree to concessions, in part because Lithuania’s economy could be ruined by winter if the sanctions remained in force.
Landsbergis, the leader of the grass-roots group Sajudis that led the successful two-year campaign for the proclamation of Lithuania’s restored independence, was at pains to stress that Lithuanian resolve had not been vanquished by months of Kremlin arm-twisting. He said he changed his mind and was supporting a freeze of the independence declaration because the wording adopted after consideration of at least a dozen rival versions was not automatic or unconditional.
“It is not an immediate moratorium,” he told reporters after the vote. “It is a promise of a moratorium under certain conditions. We are making a step toward an agreement. The next step should come from Moscow.”
The Lithuanian leader said Gorbachev had assured him and Prunskiene earlier that the economic sanctions would be lifted as soon as a moratorium was approved.
There was no immediate indication when the partial economic blockade might be lifted, or when talks with the central government on a negotiated secession from the Soviet Union might begin.
Many in the republic of 3.8 million consider the 50 years of Soviet rule as occupation by a foreign power, and outside the building in Vilnius where the Supreme Council meets, dozens of hard-line nationalists assembled to oppose the idea of tampering with the March declaration.
“A moratorium is the death of independence,” one demonstrator’s sign said. Others denounced Kremlin “blackmail” or branded Prunskiene, who endorsed the idea of a moratorium two weeks ago, “a traitor to Lithuania.”
As radios blared a live transmission of the proceedings inside, a small group of people waved the yellow-green-red flag of independent Lithuania trimmed with black ribbon as a symbol of lament.
Some lawmakers objected that the moratorium would be more valuable to Gorbachev, now prey to intense criticism from both the Soviet left and right, than to Lithuania.
The Supreme Council fell silent after the vote, from which two deputies abstained.
Obviously wary of the possibility that Gorbachev could impose direct presidential rule, the lawmakers granted themselves an escape clause by stipulating that they could cancel or prolong the moratorium and said it would automatically be lifted if the Supreme Council were unable to perform its duties for some reason.
Gorbachev has said he is in favor of the constitutional right of the 15 constituent Soviet republics to secede, but insists that they follow newly established procedures that could engage them in a five-year process of negotiations.
Despite his support for the moratorium, Landsbergis sounded a warning, saying such talks with Kremlin representatives, far from marking the start of a more relaxed phase, would be the beginning of new trials as the Soviet government fights tenaciously to safeguard its prerogatives and interests.
“The true tension and crisis is not the present, it is still distant,” he said. “When we come closer to the negotiating table . . . then all the little animals will be unleashed: slander, quarrel, provocation, threats and all types of pressure. Let us prepare.”