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Profile : In Lithuania, a Leader Steps From the Shadows : Communist boss Algirdas Brazauskas was sidelined in the rush for independence. But his courage in standing up to Moscow has made him more popular than the Pope--and given him new political strength.

May 01, 1990|ESTHER SCHRADER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VILNIUS, Soviet Union — As Lithuania's painful political battle with Moscow heats up, Algirdas Brazauskas, the ousted Communist Party professional, has emerged from the shadows to take over the republic's most critical fighting position.

Brazauskas, the charismatic first secretary of the Lithuanian Communist Party, has been the most popular personality in the republic since last December, when he led his party to a bold break with Moscow and declared Lithuanian independence as his goal.

In the ensuing political campaign, Brazauskas was the only figure in the republic who presented a serious challenge to the coalition of opposition groups that eventually unseated him and his party from power.

Now, Brazauskas is chairman of an emergency commission formed to cope with Lithuania's energy needs in the face of a Moscow-imposed blockade of oil and gas supplies to the republic.

It is the Communist Party leader's most powerful and public post since he lost his bid for the presidency and quietly accepted the title of deputy prime minister.

While he has welcomed the job, he still seems at times like a caged bear. Some call him a 57-year-old pragmatist caught in a two-month-old idealistic government.

He has long supported compromise, a position that sometimes earns him muted criticism from other leaders.

"Every deputy can express his own opinion, and that is good. But the opinion of the government must be developed in a collective way," Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene publicly chided last week.

In a neophyte government that has developed a reputation here more for its courage in standing up to Moscow than for its ability to get things done, the commission led by Brazauskas has been responsible for the most concrete measures taken yet to counter the sanctions from the Kremlin.

As a result, Brazauskas has emerged again as a powerful force in politics here. A Gallup poll released in Lithuania last week showed Brazauskas with a 93% approval rating--up from a February rating of 89%. Pope John Paul II ran a not-so-close second in this predominantly Roman Catholic nation.

Lithuanian government officials say that Brazauskas' popularity is one of the reasons he was named head of the commission responsible for instituting painful rationing measures.

In its first three days of operation, the commission imposed strict gasoline rationing, dimmed street lights, cut mass transit routes and met with more than 100 industrial managers to assess critical fuel needs.

The commission also ordered the first retaliatory measures against Moscow. It declared a suspension of gasoline supplies to Soviet military bases in the republic and declared that goods produced at Soviet-owned Lithuanian factories and sold for hard currency abroad could no longer be loaded for export at Lithuanian ports. The commission also is considering eliminating meat and milk exports to the Soviet Union's two largest cities, Leningrad and Moscow.

Political observers here attribute the commission's speed to the administrative experience of its leader. Brazauskas, an engineer by training and a longtime figure in Lithuanian political life, has a reputation as an experienced manager. His supporters say that made Brazauskas a natural choice for the post.

"He does things very quickly," said Ceslovas Jursenas, Lithuanian government spokesman and Communist Party member. "When there is a problem, he appoints someone and then asks for their decision in a day or so. It is very important, now that the situation is so tense, that the sittings (of the commission) are so calm, so reserved."

"You go to one of his meetings and you know there will be some action taken," he added. "It won't go on for hours with just idle talk."

Brazauskas has used his new position to make public his view that the Lithuanian government must change its tactics if it wants Moscow to loosen the economic screws that are being tightened around the republic.

"The blockade is a lesson to us," Brazauskas said the other day. "I think the Parliament is going to have to consider what kind of a political solution it must adopt. It is not only my opinion, but the opinion of my party, that political measures are, finally, the only way out."

Brazauskas' detractors say the Lithuanian Communist Party leader should not be using his new position to criticize the government at a time when it needs public unity in the face of the Moscow threat. Brazauskas has come under particularly harsh criticism from the leaders of Sajudis, the coalition of pro-independence groups that brought the new Lithuanian government to power.

"What Brazauskas suggested is that our government must change some of its decisions," said Virgilijius Chapaitis, a Sajudis leader and deputy in the new Parliament. "In this situation particularly, when we are virtually at war, a member of government has no right to doubt the decisions his government has made. They represent the opinion of the nation."

Until he was appointed to chair the commission, Brazauskas kept quiet.

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