WASHINGTON — It is easy to understand why Lithuania's quest for independence has engendered support in the United States. The spectacle of a small country defying the mighty Soviet empire in the name of self-determination is endearing. But there are three reasons why the United States should pause before embracing Lithuanian nationalism.
First, the successful, peaceful transformation of the Soviet Union from a totalitarian, belligerent country into a relatively open society pursuing moderate foreign-policy goals is crucial to American national security. The United States should not facilitate or support initiatives that would disrupt or hinder such a peaceful transition.
Lithuania's obsession to secede on its own terms threatens to undermine this process. It undercuts Mikhail S. Gorbachev's authority at a time when the successful reform of the Soviet system depends on the adroit exercise of that authority. Hard-liners in the Soviet elite have already used the threat of national rupture, along ethnic lines, to handicap Gorbachev's reform efforts. There may indeed be a built-in contradiction between the desire to open up the Soviet system and the wish to maintain it as a multiethnic empire. But it is not in the West's interests to encourage the disorderly demise of the Soviet empire.
Lithuanians may haughtily insist that they could care less about reforms in the Soviet Union. But the United States does care, and its policies should reflect that interest.
To say that Lithuania is a test case of Gorbachev's true reformist intentions is disingenuous. We don't have to be admirers of Gorbachev to concede that he has initiated sweeping and profound changes in the Soviet empire, changes unimaginable only a few years ago. The task of reforming the Soviet Union is Herculean even without the Lithuanian problem. Gorbachev has earned the right for more time and elbow room for his reform politics.
Second, the Lithuanian case opens a Pandora's box of potential border disputes. Nearly every border in Eastern and Central Europe changed as a result of World War II. The short list includes the boundaries of the Soviet Union, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Italy. The post-World War II borders may not be just or fair in every instance, but they have proved stable and peaceful for an unprecedented 45 years.
West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was roundly and rightly rebuked when he refused to state categorically that the question of the German-Polish border was closed. And West Germany, after encountering suspicion and consternation, wisely chose to consult with other European nations on the issue of German unification.
The Lithuanians, too, should be reminded of the importance of gradual, agreed-upon change. Actually, Lithuania should serve as an unmistakable example that a unilateral, irresponsible attempt to change the post-World War II borders is unacceptable. The Lithuanians may protest that they are only interested in their own affairs, but surely the desires of one people must be balanced against the interests of other peoples on the continent.
The third reason to pause before embracing the Lithuanian cause is infrequently discussed, though it is on many people's minds. Lithuanian nationalism has not been particularly enlightened or benign. In fact, it has been manifestly ugly.
Consider the Lithuanian record during World War II. No other people collaborated with the Nazis more enthusiastically than the Lithuanians and the Ukrainians. When Soviet troops left Kaunas, the former Lithuanian capital, on June 23, 1941, Lithuanian partisans, led by the national hero Klimaitis, began systematically killing Jews. Jewish homes and synagogues were set on fire.
Between June 25-29, Lithuanian nationalists murdered 5,000 Jews (3,800 in Kaunas, 1,200 in other towns). The killing method was as primitive as it was effective: hundreds of Jewish men, women and children were hunted down and clubbed to death in the streets and public squares of Kaunas in full view of a supportive population. On June 28, Lithuanian police, impatient with the slow pace of the killing, released convicts, gave them iron bars and sent them through the cities to kill Jews. Those not beaten publicly or tortured to death were taken by partisans to killing sites outside the city and shot.
Some Lithuanian policemen thought the shooting of young children to be too much trouble. So they tossed them alive into the pits, next to their dead parents' bodies. Those Lithuanians who were repulsed by their countrymen's barbarity were discouraged by the Lithuanian religious leader, Bishop Brizgys. He set an example for the entire population by forbidding the clergy "to aid or intercede for the Jews in any way," as the Nazis reported with satisfaction).