WORLD

FIGHTING FOR DEMOCRACY

AS A KREMLIN CRACKDOWN ON REBEL REPUBLICS CONTINUED, PUBLIC ANGER SPURRED MASS PROTESTS

MALCOLM GRAY February 4 1991
WORLD

FIGHTING FOR DEMOCRACY

AS A KREMLIN CRACKDOWN ON REBEL REPUBLICS CONTINUED, PUBLIC ANGER SPURRED MASS PROTESTS

MALCOLM GRAY February 4 1991

FIGHTING FOR DEMOCRACY

WORLD

AS A KREMLIN CRACKDOWN ON REBEL REPUBLICS CONTINUED, PUBLIC ANGER SPURRED MASS PROTESTS

They came in waves, phalanxes of demonstrators who marched to the walls of the Kremlin under nationalist flags and hand-lettered placards demanding the resignation of President Mikhail Gorbachev. Beneath chill, overcast skies, about 100,000 people filled Moscow's Manezhnaya Square on Jan. 20 to protest the bloody Soviet military assault in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius one week earlier. The size of the demonstration, coinciding with smaller protests in six other Soviet cities, was a dramatic indication that the country’s democratic reform movement could still muster an impressive show of support. But as violence continued in the Baltics, and central authorities suppressed Soviet media reports of those events, many people in the crowd near the Kremlin voiced fears that the nation was sliding toward dictatorship. Said Tamara Kropotkin, a 23year-old economics student: “This could be the last demonstration of its kind if the reactionary forces around Gorbachev get their way.”

The embattled Soviet president has come under fire from liberals and conservatives alike for his refusal to take political responsibility for the actions of his security forces in the Baltics. Among them: a tank-led assault on unarmed civilians in Vilnius on Jan. 13 that left 14 people dead, and a shootout between the interior ministry’s elite black-beret troops and local police in the Latvian capital of Riga on Jan. 20, in which five people were killed. That military crackdown has also sparked widespread international criticism and prompted Canada and other Western donors to delay or even cancel aid to help shore up the disintegrating economy of the Soviet Union, where authorities last week imposed controversial new currency restrictions. Responding to Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin and other critics, Gorbachev has denied that conservative pressures had forced him to abandon reform. Speaking at a hastily called news conference last week, the Soviet leader declared: “I decisively reject any speculation, all suspicions and slanders on this score. The gains of perestroika, democratization and glasnost were and will remain lasting values, guarded by presidential power.”

In fact, Gorbachev last week performed a now-familiar balancing act between radical re-

formers and resurgent conservatives as he tried to deal with the crisis in the Baltics. As authoritative reports circulated in Moscow that he was about to impose presidential rule on Latvia, Gorbachev held a lengthy meeting with Latvian President Anatoljis Gorbunovs on Jan. 22. According to Gorbunovs, the two men agreed that such a drastic step was unnecessary. Later that day, Gorbachev promised that

he would launch an investigation into the Jan. 13 assault on Vilnius’s television transmitter. And Gorbachev, who at first defended the local military commander who had initiated that assault, declared that “unwarranted actions” by troops were unacceptable. Responding to reports that the National Salvation Committee, a shadowy, pro-Kremlin organization in Lithuania, had supported the military action, Gorba-

chev also said that he would not tolerate any further attempts by right-wing groups to seize power unconstitutionally.

The Soviet president also promised to investigate the black berets’ assault on the local police headquarters in Riga last week. Witnesses said that red and green tracer rounds from the elite force’s automatic weapons lit up the night sky over central Riga shortly after 9 p.m. A fierce exchange of gunfire lasted for about 30 minutes, and sporadic shooting continued for another two hours. Six hours after the battle first erupted, the black berets returned to their barracks. But five people died in the night’s skirmish, among them two policemen and a member of a Latvian documentary film crew. In Moscow, Soviet Interior Minister Boris Pugo later denied that he had ordered the attack. And a pro-Soviet legislator said that the violence erupted when black berets came under fire from police headquarters, where they had gone to seek information about an alleged gang rape of a unit member’s wife. Latvian government officials denied that local police fired first.

Gorbachev expressed sympathy for the relatives of the victims. But he continued to insist that the Baltic states’ drive for independence and republican laws, which he said discriminated against Russian-speaking minorities in the region, were the root causes of the recent bloodshed. “My main task,” Gorbachev said, is “not allowing an escalation and struggle, to

normalize the situation, to achieve accord and co-operation.” He added: “Anticonstitution laws of parliaments and decrees of the republican governments must be repealed.”

But many Baltic secessionists expressed determination to regain their independence, lost when the Soviet Union forcibly annexed the three states in 1940. In the Baltic capitals last week, barricades around the legislative buildings remained in place, and special defence units of draft-age volunteers stood guard against any further attacks. Some politicians expressed skepticism that Gorbachev had sufficient control over the military to prevent further bloodshed. Said Andrejs Krastins, the deputy chairman of the Latvian legislature: “Very often, after his speeches, the army and others do quite the opposite.”

In Vilnius late last week, where a militia of about 200 men armed with a motley array of weapons was still guarding the parliament building, Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis said that he included himself among those skeptics. He added that on Jan. 23, he sent Gorbachev a telegram saying that Lithuanians were prepared to believe that the recent Soviet assaults in Lithuania and Latvia did not reflect the Soviet leader’s policies. But he urged Gorbachev to offer concrete proof of his desire for calm in the Baltics by ordering Soviet troops to withdraw from the buildings that they have occupied during the crackdown. Those sites included the main printing plants in Latvia

and Lithuania and the Vilnius TV transmitter.

That same day, however, five jeep-loads of black-beret troops armed with automatic weapons pulled up at Vilnius’s main paper-anddye warehouse. According to a Lithuanian government spokesman, two civilians who identified themselves as Communist party representatives, accompanied by 20 soldiers, claimed the building as party property. Workers inside the warehouse did not resist the seizure. And a Lithuanian spokesman said that most of the independent publications in the republic had their own sources of newsprint and did not need the paper stored in the warehouse. But Landsbergis, arguing that the takeover was designed to hamper the republic’s press, declared: “It will certainly increase tension.” In another sign of those tensions, there were unconfirmed reports at week’s end that former Lithuanian prime minister Kazimiera Prunskiene, who resigned last month, had applied for asylum in Switzerland, apparently because she feared for her life in the Soviet Union.

In Moscow, meanwhile, Yeltsin convened the Russian parliament a full week ahead of schedule. He told deputies that only Russia, with more than half of the Soviet Union’s population and most of its natural resources, could save the country from collapse. And in an appeal to the 14 other republican leaders, Yeltsin argued that by acting in unison, they could block a return to dictatorship. Added

Yeltsin: “The reactionary changeover occurring today has not yet become irreversible.” Still, the Russian parliament failed to pass a resolution condemning the so-called National Salvation Committees in Latvia and Lithuania. The resolution, supported by Yeltsin, would

have barred such anonymous, pro-Kremlin organizations in the Russian republic. Although legislators voted 117-to-51 in favor of the measure, it did not gain the absolute majority needed in the 250-member parliament. The fate of that resolution underlined the powerful, and yet vulnerable, position that Yeltsin occupies in Soviet politics: as the leader of the most powerful republican government, he represents the only significant counterbalance to Kremlin rule. But although polls confirm that he is the most popular and trusted politician in

the Soviet Union, he does not have complete control over the Russian legislature.

Certainly, Yeltsin dominated the Jan. 20 protest rally in Moscow, even though he was not present. His aides later said that he had stayed away out of concern that he might be the target of an assassination attempt. But speaker after speaker drew huge roars of approval from the otherwise orderly crowd simply by mentioning his name. The largest outcry came after one speaker relayed the Russian leader’s message that the danger of dictatorship was becoming a reality.

Clashes between Yeltsin and Gorbachev burst forth daily from the country’s press, radio and television, to There, Gorbachev appears to &lt have an advantage because &lt the Kremlin controls such ^ powerful media instruments 8 as state television, radio and § Pravda, the Communist par5 ty’s mass-circulation daily 5 newspaper. All of them have

largely held to the official line, blaming Baltic governments for provoking violence. But because Gorbachev has succeeded in the past five years in breaking the stifling state monopoly of the media, alternative newspapers are also available in Moscow and other parts of the Soviet Union. Last week’s rally in front of the Kremlin, coupled with widely circulated reports of similar anti-Gorbachev events elsewhere, suggests that glasnost might just be sturdy enough to withstand a jarring shift by its founder.

MALCOLM GRAY