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Bush, Gorbachev Dealings Reach Impasse Over Baltics : Diplomacy: U.S. plans to file charges of rights abuse in Lithuania, one of many issues bedeviling relationship.


WASHINGTON — The telephone call between the Oval Office and the Kremlin last week lasted 45 long minutes, not counting the 25-minute delay when the secure line went down. First, President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev talked about the war in the Persian Gulf and the conversation went well, according to an official who was present.

Then Bush changed the subject, warning Gorbachev, politely but frankly, that the Soviet army's crackdown in Lithuania is unacceptable to the United States. It would freeze the progress in U.S.-Soviet relations that both presidents had worked so hard to build, Bush said.

From the other end of the telephone line came a silence--and then, in Russian, a perfunctory acknowledgement that Bush's views had been heard.

The exchange--or, rather, the absence of one--was symptomatic of an impasse that has brought Bush to an unhappy watershed in his dealings with Gorbachev. After two years of optimism about an expanding "partnership" with Moscow--a link that Bush described as an important part of his vision of a new world order--the U.S.-Soviet honeymoon has abruptly ended, crushed under the tanks in the streets of Vilnius.

On Tuesday, for the first time in Bush's tenure, the United States imposed a diplomatic sanction against the Soviet Union, announcing that it will file formal charges of human rights abuse in Lithuania under the rules of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

At the same time, the State Department announced that it plans to station U.S. diplomats in each of the three Baltic republics--Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania--to monitor events during the republics' struggle for independence.

Even those relatively modest actions came only after a week of debate among Administration officials preoccupied with the war in the gulf. One reason Bush made a point of speaking personally to Gorbachev about the Baltic crisis, a senior official said, was to send "a strong signal to Moscow (that) we're watching, that there is no diversion (of U.S. attention) to the degree that was the case in 1956."

In that year, Soviet tanks crushed a revolution in Hungary while the United States was preoccupied with a war in the Middle East.

The Administration also found it difficult deciding what to do about Lithuania, the official said, because many of the options for punishing the Soviet Union--canceling U.S. aid to economic reform programs, for example--could hurt reformers more than the Communist Old Guard.

"We want to keep throwing a lifeline to the reformers," the official said.

But the Baltic crisis is far from the only problem bedeviling U.S.-Soviet relations. As Gorbachev has turned back from the path of reform, his actions have troubled the Bush Administration in several ways:

--He has allowed the Soviet general staff to stall negotiations toward deep cuts in both conventional and nuclear arms, an ominous indication of growing military influence.

--Gorbachev has rejected the pleas of some of his own advisers for a crash program of radical economic reforms, dashing the hopes of some U.S. officials who hoped that the Soviet Union could evolve toward a Western-style free market system.

--The conflict between Gorbachev and the restive leaders of the country's 15 republics has intensified, posing a serious dilemma for this country: Should the United States continue to deal with the Kremlin, or gradually shift its attention to the provinces?

Underlying all of this is the conviction, which Bush and his aides all proclaim, that the improvement in superpower relations has rested largely on Gorbachev's momentum--now lost--in the direction of democracy.

"The process of reform in the U.S.S.R. has been an essential element in the improvement of U.S.-Soviet relations," Bush said last week in a tough public complaint about the crackdown in Lithuania. "Events like those now taking place in the Baltic states threaten to set back, or perhaps even reverse, the process of reform which is so important . . . in the development of the new international order."

So far, Bush aides note hopefully, Gorbachev's turn to the right has had little direct effect on Soviet foreign policy. The Soviet leader has made a point of reaffirming his interest in good relations with the West and appointed a reform-minded diplomat, Alexander A. Bessmertnykh, as foreign minister to succeed Eduard A. Shevardnadze (who resigned last month to protest the domestic crackdown).

At a Moscow news conference Tuesday, Gorbachev disclaimed presidential responsibility for the deaths of 14 people 10 days ago in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. He pledged a full legal probe of that incident and another one on Sunday in Riga, Latvia, where six have died in the past week.

Gorbachev appeared tired and burdened as he made his remarks Tuesday.

He declared that his reform policies would continue and that he would not abide right-wing groups trying to take power with military backing.

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