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Vytautas Landsbergis : Navigating Through Treacherous Shoals for Lithuania's Independence

May 26, 1991|Robert Scheer | Robert Scheer is a national correspondent for The Times

It is amateur time in Eastern Europe, and Vytautas Landsbergis, the 58-year-old puckish president of Lithuania, is no exception. His area of expertise is not administrative law but the music of turn-of-the-century Lithuanian composer Mikalojus Ciurlionis, and he has said that he is not happy in the corridors of power unless there is a piano nearby.

Dwarfed by stout bodyguards and aides, the former music professor often seemed lost in his crowded entourage as he pursued a hectic 10-day tour of the United States--encompassing everything from a meeting with President George Bush at the White House to breaking bread with adoring members of the Lithuanian exile community of Santa Monica.

But appearances aside, Landsbergis was born to the role of militant Lithuanian nationalist. His family genealogy is peppered with well-known opponents of both czarist and Soviet power over his nation of 3.7 million people, 80% of whom are Lithuanians. "He is guided by a single motivating idea--the freedom of Lithuania," says his wife, Grazyna, ever at his side during this tour. Others have been more critical--including his former prime minister, Kazimiera Prunskiene, who broke with the president earlier this year, charging he was too inflexible in his dealings with the Kremlin and unwilling to support necessary economic reforms.

Landsbergis' tough line has put Lithuania at the forefront of the independence movement at a time when a majority of the Soviet republics are moving toward a greater measure of unity. Yet recent elections have demonstrated that he remains highly popular within Lithuania, and there is every reason to expect Landsbergis to keep upping the ante in his battles with Moscow.

During a recent conversation, Landsbergis made it quite clear that he is for intensifying the pressure on the Soviet leadership to get out of Lithuania and indicated his obvious displeasure with what he judges to be Bush's timid performance in this area. He punctuated this statement with a pull on his goatee, a professorial mannerism he frequently used for emphasis.

Question: You just met with the President. Has the Administration given you the backing you sought?

Answer: The major opportunity was missed unfortunately on March 11 of last year, when Lithuania declared its independence and the Administration of the United States remained passive.

Q: What should the U.S. have done?

A: Restore diplomatic relationships (with the Baltic Republics); instead the response was assistance to the Soviet Union.

Q: Clearly, there is a difference in perspective between you and the Bush Administration over how things are going with the Soviet Union. During your visit, President Bush paid tribute to Gorbachev as the creator of glasnost and perestroika.

A: Because they are used to Mr. Gorbachev, to the existing situation, and changes would require a significant adjustment--which they might not be prepared to make.

Q: Is it also possible that the agendas are not the same. That the United States has an interest in arms control and all kinds of negotiations with the Soviet Union going on in different areas and that they feel that they can deal with Gorbachev.

A: If the United States thinks that maintaining the Soviet communist empire is useful, then they are making a very large mistake.

Q: Did you tell President Bush this?

A: No. Perhaps he wouldn't say that he wants to have the communists. But sometimes his is a reaction of those afraid of change. They would like to freeze change and revolution.

Q: But one problem always in the world is you have small countries and they have their agendas and you have big countries and they different ones. Is this not a classic situation in which your agenda is not the same as that of the United States?

A: It is not necessarily that they have their own plans or agendas but a different set of experiences. The U.S. has never been contested, was never forced to live not according to its own principals and has never sensed the oppression of a foreign force. That, of course, always makes it easier to determine the price of freedom. There was a time in the United States history, 200 years ago, which was very similar to the situation (in Lithuania) today. But now the United States is not fighting for freedom--they do business.

Q: Are we moving to a point where you expect to see more results from the U.S.?

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