It was a modest concession. Trying to mend the rift between Moscow and Lithuania, Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov announced an easing of the fuel embargo last week to just one of the republic’s factories. The fertilizer plant at Jonava, officials said, would get enough natural gas to operate at 30-percent capacity and re-employ about 1,600 laidoff workers. That did not amount to a lifting of sanctions, imposed after Lithuania unilaterally declared its independence on March 11. But it was the clearest signal yet of the Kremlin’s eagerness to break the Baltic impasse and negotiate a formula that would satisfy all its fractious republics without breaking up the Soviet Union. Said Lithuanian Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene: “It is very obvious that they want negotiations to begin.”
Altogether, it was a week of compromise for beleaguered Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. He also reversed himself on a key condition for German reunification, and his government postponed unpopular bread-price increases that were to have gone into effect next month. But the Lithuanian concession was widely viewed as the most significant. It came one day after Gorbachev suggested what he called a “union treaty” between Moscow and the 15 republics. The treaty would yield sovereignty in all areas except defence, foreign affairs and some aspects of finance. But each republic would be allowed to select its own system of government and would be largely responsible for its own economy.
Republican leaders greeted the proposal cautiously. “So far, it’s only words,” said Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis. But Kremlin hard-liners expressed outrage. Yegor Ligachev, Gorbachev’s chief Politburo rival, complained that “our federation is being taken to pieces. If we continue to make one concession after another, we may lose everything.”
Gorbachev’s pronouncements on Germany reinforced that concern. The Soviet president agreed for the first time that West German troops could remain in NATO without a corresponding role for East Germans in the Sovietled Warsaw Pact. His remarks, made during a report to the Soviet parliament on his summit meeting with President George Bush three weeks ago, fell short of Western demands for unconditional German membership in NATO. But officials in Washington said that they were becoming increasingly convinced that Gorbachev had reconciled himself to the idea.
Gorbachev clearly hopes that Washington will reciprocate by granting economic assistance to the Soviet Union. That could help alleviate some of the country’s most pressing problems and, in theory, make membership in the Soviet Union attractive enough so that none of its republics would want to leave. On that front, parliament gave Gorbachev some breathing space last week by approving, in principle, his plan to create a free-market economy. But legislators, obviously reluctant to remove subsidies on bread and other staples, told the government to come up with a new plan for price reform by Sept. 1.
Analysts say that Gorbachev’s biggest test will be the 28th Communist party congress, which begins on July 2. If it ends in a party split, as is widely predicted, the Soviet president would face the unenviable choice of joining the reformers, who accuse him of doing too little, or crawling back to the conservatives, who accuse him of doing too much.
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