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Documentary : Lithuania's Leader Lives Trapped in His Freedom : Vytautas Landsbergis resides in the Parliament building surrounded by bodyguards. His situation reflects that of the republic he governs.

February 19, 1991|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VILNIUS, Soviet Union — Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis' lifestyle is an allegory for politics here. Protected by sandbags and men with revolvers, he lives holed up in his third-floor office, afraid to go into the street for fear he might be shot or abducted.

Yet in his mind, Landsbergis is a free man. As his native land begins its second year of bitter deadlock with the Kremlin, what can be said of Landsbergis also applies to this stubborn, tough-minded slice of disputed territory along the Baltic shore: Moscow and the rest of the world may think differently, but like its president, Lithuania sees itself as free and independent--albeit under the gun.

Last year at about this time, when Lithuania's Parliament, the Supreme Council, issued a solemn reaffirmation of its sovereignty, it seemed to some a charming but totally impractical act--some sort of 20th-Century rebirth of the imaginary kingdom of Ruritania. But Lithuania's struggle against Moscow has since taken a deadly serious turn, becoming the stuff of which superpower crises are made.

Lithuania is about the size of West Virginia, and its 3.7 million people give it a population akin to Kentucky's. But in Kremlin eyes, the republic's importance is far greater than its size. To Moscow, the front line in the battle to hold the Soviet Union together runs through Independence Square in Vilnius, where barricades were hastily thrown up last month to defend Landsbergis and the rest of the Supreme Council from potential attacks by the Soviet army.

Here is where Soviet geopoliticians, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev included, have taken a stand to prevent an updated version of the "domino theory" from being put to the test. If this Baltic republic is allowed to secede on its own terms, the thinking goes, a meltdown of the Soviet Union will inevitably ensue.

Thus: hold the line in Vilnius and keep Lithuania Soviet, at least for a time, and Gorbachev's restyled union of "sovereign" republics will have a fighting chance.

On the wind-swept heights west of Vilnius, a 30-foot-long section of steel I-beam, welded into a cross, has been dragged up a steep, icy slope as a stark reminder of the lengths to which pro-Moscow forces in the republic have been willing to go in order to keep it in the Kremlin's orbit.

It was on this spot that 13 unarmed civilians were slain by Soviet paratroopers last month in the soldiers' assault on the city's radio and television tower. In the deep snow, a pathetic shrine to the victims has taken shape--bouquets of flowers quickly frozen by the cold, candles inside jars to shield them from the wind, a wooden statue of Christ wearing a crown of thorns.

Like countless other Lithuanians, Raimondas Milavicius, 51, a railway worker, came recently to look and reflect. "I don't blame the Russians for the killings; I blame the Bolsheviks," said the short, squat man who had just finished his shift at the Vilnius rail depot.

More than a month after the assault, armored personnel carriers still stood around the tower. Their motors were running, probably only to keep the crewmen warm, but a sinister reminder that Soviet military might could strike at any time, at any spot. "Beasts," Milavicius said simply, and spat.

Back in the Parliament building, Landsbergis lives and works, arguably one of the biggest impediments to good relations with Moscow. Probably no single domestic political figure, longtime critic Boris N. Yeltsin included, infuriates Gorbachev as much as this nasal-voiced, pedantic professor from Kaunas who will not let himself be moved by either crippling economic blockades or tanks.

"We had worked together before. And it was not always bad, you know," Landsbergis, 58, commented when asked about his relations with Gorbachev. He laughed sardonically. "But I have no tanks, you know. . . . I have no paratroopers or machine guns. I do not mean that these are Gorbachev's final arguments, but they are in his arsenal, they are being used in the negotiations."

The rest of the Soviet Union is watching Lithuania intently for clues as to how much leeway the Kremlin is willing to give local leaders, just what it is prepared to allow greater "sovereignty" to mean. People here are pessimistic: "Today, US. Tomorrow, YOU," warns one of the thousands of posters and slogans stuck to the five-foot-high concrete blocks, tangles of reinforcing bars and other defenses piled around the Supreme Council building near the ice-dotted Nerigna River.

The next round in the battle between Moscow and the republics occurs March 3, when Lithuania's neighbors, Latvia and Estonia, hold their referendums on independence. Gorbachev has called the entire country to the polls on March 17 to vote on his notion of a revitalized federation. Landsbergis and the overwhelming majority of his countrymen want no part of it, but Gorbachev has insisted that they adhere to the cumbersome secession procedure established in 1990, which would delay Lithuanian independence by at least five years.

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