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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.

April 22, 1990|Alex Alexiev | Alex Alexiev writes frequently about Soviet affairs

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.

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.

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.

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