WORLD

CHALLENGING GORBACHEV

THE SOVIET LEADER TRIES TO HALT LITHUANIA’S DRIVE TOWARDS INDEPENDENCE FROM MOSCOW

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 22 1990
WORLD

CHALLENGING GORBACHEV

THE SOVIET LEADER TRIES TO HALT LITHUANIA’S DRIVE TOWARDS INDEPENDENCE FROM MOSCOW

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 22 1990

CHALLENGING GORBACHEV

WORLD

THE SOVIET LEADER TRIES TO HALT LITHUANIA’S DRIVE TOWARDS INDEPENDENCE FROM MOSCOW

As see Algimantas Soviet leader Chekuolis Mikhail prepared Gorbato chev last week, his excitement was readily apparent. The 58-year-old Chekuolis, who joined the Communist party more than 30 years ago, belongs to both the nationwide Congress of People’s Deputies and the Central Committee of the republic of Lithuania’s Communist party. Those positions, coupled with Chekuolis’s professed admiration for the Soviet leader, would appear to make him a loyal ally. But as Gorbachev paid a three-day visit to Lithuania, Chekuolis said that he and the majority of people in the republic had only one issue to discuss with him. “Gorbachev must allow Lithuania to become free and independent from the Soviet Union,” he told Maclean ’s. “He must also realize that this cannot be delayed any longer.”

During Gorbachev’s travels across the tiny Baltic republic of 3.7 million people, he saw demonstrations of widespread support for those beliefs. The unprecedented trip, designed to defuse growing pro-independence sentiments, provided clear signs that many Lithuanians are prepared to push his policy of democratization to the limit. His arrival in Vilnius, the capital, coincided with a pro-independence demonstration attended by an estimated 200,000 people. And although Gorbachev was politely and even warmly greeted in various meetings, Vytautas Landsbergis, chairman of the pro-independence Sajudis group, which organized the demonstration, made a critical distinction. “We greet Mr. Gorbachev,” he said, “as the leader of a great neighboring state.”

Such bold pronouncements presented Gorbachev with his most direct political challenge since he became leader in 1985. With much of the country already embroiled in ethnic strife, and support for sovereignty also strong in the neighboring Baltic republics of Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania may be a test case for similar challenges. In fact, Latvia recently became the second republic to repeal an article of the constitution that guarantees the Communist party a “leading role” in society. The Lithuanian Communists have gone one step further, declaring in December that their party was independent of the national party.

In response, Gorbachev’s public manner last week alternated between conciliation and exasperation. Wading into a Vilnius crowd with his wife, Raisa, he argued that Lithuanian separation would threaten his reform programs—and perhaps even his job. “We have embarked on this path, and I am the one who chose it,” he declared. “My personal fate is linked to this choice.” Clearly pleading for time, he later told a group of Lithuanian intellectuals that he is

prepared to make sweeping constitutional changes that would greatly enhance the powers of each of the constituent republics. He also said that a bill is now being written that would allow any of the 15 republics the right to separate in an orderly fashion. However, taking a tougher tack, the Soviet leader repeatedly warned that full independence would be an economic calamity for Lithuania, costing it millions of dollars in subsidized Soviet products

and raw materials. Go it alone in the world market, he said, “and you’ll bog down in a swamp immediately.”

Landsbergis reacted angrily to Gorbachev’s mention of a new legal mechanism for secession. “This is a cheap lie for naïve people in the West,” he said. “It means other people will decide for us.” For weeks, political leaders in Lithuania have been debating what measures Moscow might take if the republic continues on its path towards independence. Most Lithuanians claim that Gorbachev, despite pressure from Communist hard-liners, would not resort to armed intervention. But Sajudis members and local government officials say that Moscow has issued veiled threats of an economic blockade that would deprive the republic of badly needed imports of food and fuel. And one member of Gorbachev’s entourage conceded that Kremlin feelings “are running very, very high” against Lithuanian leaders and particularly against Algirdas Brazauskas, the reformminded head of the Lithuanian Communist party. Declared the Soviet official: “There are a lot of people who believe we should just fire Brazauskas and all his supporters, replace them with someone loyal to us and say to hell with any bad publicity.”

But after Gorbachev’s visit, the Lithuanian Communists remained intent on independence. Vytautas Statulevicus, the senior member of Lithuania’s delegation in the Supreme Soviet, told Maclean’s, “There is no turning back, no

delay, no compromise possible from our side on this issue.” In fact, Lithuania has a strong legal case in challenging Moscow’s control. The Soviet Union annexed the Baltic republics under a secret pact with Nazi Germany in their 1939 nonaggression treaty. As a result, many Balts—and Western governments—have never recognized Soviet control over the region. The Soviet legislature earlier this year declared the protocol “illegal” but insisted that the Baltics remained part of the union.

Still, Lithuania, with its strongly homogeneous background and traditions, is distinct. Eighty per cent of its residents are ethnic Lithuanian, with a history, language and culture that have little in common with those of most of the Soviet Union. Only nine per cent are ethnic Russian, while the rest are of varied backgrounds. Said Alvydas Medalinskas, a Sajudis organizer: “Lithuanians do not look, act, think or speak like Soviets, and we do not want to. So why are we forced to belong?” People of all ages echo that opinion. A group of Kremlin envoys, speaking to largely middle-aged members of the local Academy of Sciences, were hooted and jeered when they questioned Lithuania’s right to independence. Among young people, feelings run equally strong. Asked whether he supports political independence for Lithuania, Adrias Valotkas, a 25-year-old teacher, replied, “I cannot think of a single acquaintance who does not.”

Lithuanians, many of whom have a blond,

Nordic appearance and frequently speak heavily accented Russian, say that other Soviets often discriminate against them. Historically, few republics have suffered more under Soviet rule. Under the repressive regime of onetime Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, an estimated 300,000 Lithuanians were arrested on various charges and deported to labor camps. Many died there.

But Lithuania has been remarkably successful at making the most of its limited size. One dramatic example is the sophisticated political network that links members of Sajudis and the ruling Communist party. Sajudis, which means “movement” in Lithuanian, was formed in the summer of 1988. Although the group has no formal membership other than its 34-seat board of directors, it has played a powerful role in the republic’s politics. Sajudis-organized rallies have been attended by hundreds of thousands of people, and Sajudisendorsed candidates all won easy victories in last March’s elections to the national Congress of People’s Deputies.

Even Communist party officials acknowledge that their leader, Brazauskas, was elected only because Sajudis decided not to endorse any candidate running against him.

Since Sajudis’s creation, Lithuania has officially restored the republic’s prewar flag and national anthem, and the legislature has declared Lithuanian to be the only official language. Last month, the republic, which is largely Roman Catholic, formally celebrated

Christmas Day as a recognized holiday for the first time since the Second World War. In the last year, many streets and villages that had been renamed in favor of Soviet heroes have been restored to their original names.

Many of the Sajudis board members also hold senior positions in the Communist party. Said Chekuolis, who is also a board member of Sajudis: “By having lots of Communists who are part of the government, Sajudis is stronger. By having lots of Sajudis members with public support, the Communist party is stronger.” Some officials acknowledge that they belong to the party only to further the campaign for political independence. Said Chekuolis: “The Communist party is the horse leading the cart across the river towards independence. I tell supporters of independence to join the party, because it is up to us to feed and stroke that horse—and to control its reins.”

I Still, the future of Lithuanian Communist party members remains unclear. Although party leader Brazauskas has won widespread respect for his determination to steer an independent course from Moscow, among many Lithuanians resentment against the party is so strong that they say they cannot support it under any circumstances. “Communism is the reason our people are not free,” said Rita Belazeitiene, a 34-year-old housewife. “I cannot forgive any Communist for that.” With elections to the republic’s Supreme Soviet scheduled for Feb. 24, Sajudis and Commu-

nist members will be running directly against each other in a number of constituencies. And already, the close relationship between Sajudis and the party is showing signs of strain. Last week, Communist officials criticized Sajudis for its “intemperate” behavior in organizing mass demonstrations during Gorbachev’s visit.

Despite those differences in tactics among Lithuanians, Gorbachev clearly sensed the republic’s overwhelming support for independence. Senior Lithuanian Communists say that they have received behind-the-scenes indications that Gorbachev is prepared to compromise. One Lithuanian Communist official, who has met several times with Gorbachev and other Politburo members, said that the Soviet leader appears ready to accept the establishment of two Communist parties in each republic: one independent from Moscow, the other affiliated. From there, said the official, “it would only be a short step towards a real multiparty system.” But he added, “The question is whether the rest of the Politburo would stand for it.” '

In Lithuania, where Sajudis-backed candidates appear almost certain to dominate the republic’s elections next month, the drive towards independence will likely accelerate. After the balloting, predicted Chekuolis, “a referendum on independence may be less than two years away.” In a speech to Lithuanian workers last week, Gorbachev appeared well aware that a decisive period may be approaching. He urged them to help build a better Soviet Union and to think of the potentially hazardous consequences of separation. “If you are thinking about independence,” he declared, “do not think about it seven times—think about it a thousand times.” But in a republic with a longheld yearning for independence, that is a demand that many Lithuanians have already met.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Vilnius