The Soviet army’s brutal crackdown on the Baltic republic of Lithuania over the weekend poses a question even more troubling than the tragic events themselves:
Has President Mikhail S. Gorbachev swung over to the hard-right with the Soviet military and security forces, or have they overtaken him to act alone?
At stake is the future of the Soviet Union as a pluralist society dedicated to the democratic ideals that Gorbachev has espoused since he assumed the Soviet leadership nearly six years ago.
“This is a direct blow against democracy,” said Mikhail N. Poltoranin, information minister of the Russian Federation, the country’s largest republic. “It means a sharp turn backwards.”
And that, in turn, would put into question the Soviet Union’s relationship with the West and its role in international affairs for they were based, first of all, on Gorbachev’s political and economic reforms at home.
“Enduring U.S.-Soviet cooperation, indeed partnership, depends on continued reform,” Secretary of State James A. Baker III said in Ankara, Turkey, “for partnership is impossible in the absence of shared values.”
For the West, as for Soviet citizens, the key question is whether Gorbachev ordered so bloody a crackdown in Lithuania and, if so, why. If he did not, do the country’s hard-line conservatives, on the ascendancy after five years of decline, now have the power to act on their own?
“Would it be better to have Gorbachev scrapping perestroika and abandoning democracy or to have him held hostage by generals who act as they wish with impunity?” Yuri N. Afanasyev, a radical reformer in the Congress of People’s Deputies, commented Sunday.
“The answer almost does not matter for, either way, we are facing the establishment of a dictatorship. Either Gorbachev will rule through the army and the KGB (security police) or they will rule without him.”
Was this the same fear that led Eduard A. Shevardnadze, one of Gorbachev’s closest political allies, to resign last month as foreign minister, warning dramatically that the country was sliding into a right-wing dictatorship?
Shevardnadze had referred to the prospect of a crackdown like that in Lithuania. The president had done little to halt the advance of “reactionary forces,” Shevardnadze said, and he, too, would be in danger from the mounting pressure from the right.
Kazimiera Prunskiene, Lithuania’s former prime minister, contended on Sunday that the army’s actions in Vilnius did spell the end of Soviet reform. “This means the start of what Shevardnadze talked about--it is akin to military dictatorship,” she said.
There is a third possibility--that Gorbachev did order tougher measures to enforce the Soviet constitution and national laws in independence-minded Lithuania, making an example of it, and that the army and local conservatives, long in confrontation with the nationalist Lithuanian government, used the opportunity to settle old scores.
But Gorbachev would not have forgotten, as Shevardnadze clearly has not, the carnage two years ago in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the foreign minister’s hometown, when troops killed 19 people while clearing a city plaza of a large but peaceful group of anti-government protesters.
Gorbachev had left the Council of the Federation, which is now the country’s top policy-making body, with the impression at its meeting here on Saturday that there would be a “breathing space” while a council delegation sought a compromise in Lithuania. All the republican leaders who spoke, starting with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, warned against further violence.
If this compact was broken, whether by Gorbachev or his generals, then all of his plans for uniting the republics in a new “union treaty,” which is meant to be the structure for preventing the breakup of the Soviet Union, will be threatened, and force will be the only reliable method to hold it together.
“Who is now in charge of the country--Gorbachev or a group of generals,” Vytautas Landsbergis, the Lithuanian president, demanded Sunday of a top-level “goodwill mission” from the Federation Council. The answer was, Landsbergis said later, “We don’t know.”
Although the military commanders in Vilnius said they were acting under Gorbachev’s orders, and his critics have no doubts that they were, the Soviet president’s position was far from clear Sunday evening.
Despite the magnitude of the events, Gorbachev made no comment himself and allowed his tough interior minister, Boris Pugo, in a televised statement, to turn the victims of assault into its perpetrators and to place the blame for their deaths and injuries on the Lithuanian leadership.
The Lithuanian nationalists had provoked the central government beyond all patience, Pugo said, and the Landsbergis government had now lost the support of the people. In calling its supporters to defend the television tower and broadcast center, it was creating a human shield for itself, he argued, and thus it alone was responsible for the deaths that followed.
This leaves Gorbachev with a moral as well as political decision about where he stands and what sacrifices are permissible to maintain his leadership of the country and achieve the ultimate goals of perestroika. As pressure has mounted from the right, he has become increasingly equivocal in taking such positions.
About four months ago, Gorbachev began to move perceptibly to the right, first on economic policy, then on political reform and finally on what he perceives as the crunch issue--the preservation of the Soviet Union as a federal state.
The shifts appeared at first to be more tactical concessions to the resurgent conservatives and a response to popular demands for greater law and order in society than a strategic turn of his own.
“Has not power moved to the right?” Gorbachev was asked by liberal deputies last month at a year-end session of the Soviet Parliament. “Yes,” he replied, “power has moved to the right--along with society.” For Gorbachev, the overriding issue has become the integrity of the Soviet Union as a state; without agreement on a new federal union among its constituent republics, he sees no way to resolve the country’s crushing economic problems or to promote its further democratization.
Yet, the acuity of these multiple crises--economic, ethnic and political--is accelerating the Soviet Union’s disintegration. Lithuania was the first republic to declare its independence, but it was followed by others that are proclaiming either their independence or their “sovereignty.”
This threatens Gorbachev with the breakup of the state even before he can deal adequately with the underlying economic and political problems.
Moreover, it is an issue on which Gorbachev is highly vulnerable to criticism from conservatives, who hold him responsible for the “loss” of Eastern Europe last year and see the disintegration of the Soviet Union as occurring just as fast, with disastrous results for its 290 million people.
“Our ‘external empire’ is gone--it went in less than a year--and if our ‘internal empire’ goes as fast, what will be left?” an official of the Communist Party’s Central Committee said Sunday. “This issue is paramount now for Gorbachev. To my mind, it is the issue on which he could be removed from power and perestroika abandoned and even reversed.”