Lifting its 10-week oil embargo of energy-starved Lithuania, the Soviet Union began pumping petroleum again to the breakaway Baltic state Saturday in exchange for its agreement the previous day to suspend its unilateral declaration of independence.
The flow of crude oil to the Mazeikiai refinery, which shut down more than two months ago for want of petroleum, resumed at 5:30 p.m., dispatcher Alma Belskite said by telephone from the installation, Lithuania's only refinery. She said, however, that gasoline and other products might not reach consumers for weeks.
The oil flowed via the Byelorussian city of Novopolotsk through a pipeline named "Friendship," an ironic name given the bitter battle of wills with Moscow provoked by Lithuania's March 11 vote to break away from the Soviet Union, which Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev opposed as illegal and thus void.
President Vytautas Landsbergis said Gorbachev pledged to lift economic sanctions intended to halt the secession bid if the Lithuanian legislature placed a moratorium on the independence declaration, a step the Supreme Council agreed to Friday on the condition that negotiations on secession open with Moscow.
By keeping his side of the bargain, Gorbachev was taking the biggest step yet toward halting punishing economic measures that he ordered in April against Lithuania's independence-minded government, and also moving to eliminate a contentious issue in superpower relations.
The House of Representatives voted June 6 to deny new trade benefits to the Soviet Union until President Bush certifies that the Kremlin has lifted sanctions against Lithuania and started negotiations on independence demands. Ending the oil blockade was a decisive move in that direction.
Bush, who learned of Saturday's developments while golfing near his vacation home in Kennebunkport, Me., said, "I am very encouraged by that, very."
The president and other Western leaders had urged both Gorbachev and the Lithuanians to compromise so a dialogue could begin.
Dispatcher Belskite said the oil being pumped to the refinery 250 miles north of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius was being stockpiled in storage tanks and that refining would not begin immediately.
Mazeikiai's 2,000 workers, largely idled since the plant shut down April 23, have to be summoned to resume work, she said, and gasoline, kerosene and diesel fuel produced there might not reach retail outlets for two weeks.
It was uncertain how quickly the refinery could attain its old level of production, about 12 million tons of assorted petroleum products a year, only a fourth of which are consumed in Lithuania, with the rest going to other Soviet republics or for export.
Rita Dapkus, a spokeswoman for the government Lithuanian Information Center, said the refinery initially asked to receive 1,000 tons of crude an hour.
Lithuania depends on the Soviet Union for 97% of its energy supplies, and consequently the Kremlin's April 18 shut-off of all crude oil and 84% of the republic's natural gas shipments sent shock waves through the local economy.
Landsbergis termed the measure the onset of "economic warfare."
As meager reserve stocks of petroleum dwindled, gasoline for private cars was rationed to less than eight gallons a month before it ran out altogether. State prices for Soviet fuels are low compared to world levels, and Algirdas Brazauskas, head of Lithuania's Communist Party, said his homeland's energy bill would run $5 million daily if the Vilnius government, which has only $500,000 in foreign currency reserves, were to buy its oil and gas abroad.
"All gas stations were closed a long time ago," Eduardas Potesinkas, an employee of state-run Lithuanian television, said by telephone Saturday when asked to assess his republic's energy situation. "Only ambulances, police vehicles, children's institutions and food service vehicles are still being supplied with gasoline."
Heat was turned off in apartment buildings, though the advent of warmer weather made this no hardship.
Oil and natural gas are burned to generate electricity in Lithuania, and the energy squeeze took a heavy toll on the economy. According to the republic's Department of Statistics, 165,000 industrial workers and 7,300 people in the farming sector are now unemployed, and another 22,400 people have been forced into "unscheduled paid vacations." Ten industrial enterprises shut down entirely.
Though Soviet officials recently consented to increase the natural gas flow enough to supply a fertilizer plant, economist Kazimiera Prunskiene, Lithuania's prime minister, said last week that her homeland's economy would be in shambles if the sanctions decreed by Gorbachev were to continue until winter.
There was no announcement Saturday from sources in either Moscow or Vilnius on when natural gas supplies--pumped in through four pipelines--might return to their normal 18 million cubic meters a day, or when shipments of other goods like coffee, tea, fish, sugar and citrus fruit that the Lithuanians say have been stopped might resume.
Vilnius Radio and Lithuania's ELTA news agency said the Soviet first deputy oil minister, Lev Churilov, announced the resumption of oil shipments in a phone call Saturday to the Council of Ministers, which Prunskiene heads. According to ELTA, Soviet officials indicated they were ready to ship the maximum that the pipeline to Mazeikiai can handle.
That was less than 24 hours after the Supreme Council's 69-35 decision to accede to Gorbachev's demands by placing a 100-day moratorium on the independence declaration, to go into effect as soon as negotiations with representatives of the central government open.
There was no indication when such talks might begin, and Gorbachev's personal involvement in the near future seems very doubtful, since his attention has been largely absorbed by a nationwide Communist Party congress that will open Monday and that is expected to subject his economic and social reforms to blistering criticism.
Lithuania and the other Baltic republics were forcibly absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1940, losing the independence they gained after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Gorbachev insists that they follow a new law that, according to its literal interpretation, could delay a republic's secession from the Soviet Union for five years.
Though the Supreme Council vote left laws passed by the independence-minded Parliament intact and seemed only an indirect acknowledgment of continuing Soviet authority in Lithuania, some in the republic of 3.8 million openly disapproved and voiced fears about the consequences.
"Many people are dissatisfied and angry about the decision to suspend the independence act," Potesinkas said. "I'm afraid Moscow may interpret this suspension its own way and decide that laws of the U.S.S.R. should operate on Lithuanian territory."
He said there is a silver lining to the sanctions, however.
"The biggest lesson we can draw from the blockade is that we have learned to live the way they live in the West--that is, to save water, heating fuel and to have individual initiative," he said.