The Technopolar Moment
How Digital Powers Will Reshape the Global Order
For over two years Lithuania has been moving toward reclaiming its independence. This drive reached a crescendo on March 11, 1990, when the Supreme Soviet of Lithuania declared the republic no longer bound by Soviet law. The act reasserted the independence Lithuania had declared more than seventy years before, a declaration unilaterally annulled by the U.S.S.R. in 1940 when it annexed Lithuania as the result of a pact between Stalin and Hitler.
The decision to push for independence was made only about two weeks before its announcement by Sajudis, the Lithuanian Movement for Perestroika. The declaration reflected a consensus on the desire for independence, not its timing or the means to achieve it. Despite these differences, however, and the hardships a fight for independence promises, virtually all Lithuanians continue to support sovereignty for the republic-including a majority of the republic's non-Lithuanian residents.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev initially assumed independence was a "card" Lithuanians were trying to play, that they could be made to back down through the threat of force and the promise of political and economic autonomy. When the strength of Lithuanian resolve caught Moscow by surprise, Gorbachev changed his strategy. He apparently decided that threats and promises would not suffice and, after a 48-hour warning period, on April 13 he began to cut supplies of oil and natural gas to the republic.
From the onset of the crisis Gorbachev was aware that his stand against Lithuania risked his hard-earned rapprochement with the West. He nonetheless chose a course of economic embargo, conscious that his foreign policy initiatives hung in the balance. This gamble may yet pay off. President Bush and West European leaders have decided that their fifty-year support for Baltic independence is an indulgence no longer sustainable in the post-Cold War world. Their position is that the political future of three small states, with fewer than ten million people among them, must not jeopardize the emergence of a new security order in Europe or undermine the processes of political democratization and economic decentralization in the U.S.S.R.
Without outside support the Lithuanian republic will eventually be broken by Moscow's economic embargo. Popular support for the Lithuanian president, Vytautas Landsbergis, must eventually erode when the lights in his republic are slowly dimmed and the shelves laid bare. The Lithuanian government has already agreed to suspend some of its independence legislation in an effort to negotiate a compromise with Moscow and, before his Washington summit visit, Gorbachev yielded and met with Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene. While Gorbachev's policies may lead Lithuania to temporary submission, they will not necessarily end the U.S.S.R's other politically divisive secessionist movements and nationalist conflicts, or preclude the possibilities of outbreaks of major violence.
Gorbachev's failure to defuse the Lithuanian secessionist movement long before the republic declared independence remains unexplained. Although the steady increase in political activism in the Baltics since August 1987 should have provided ample warning of an approaching challenge to the legitimacy of Soviet rule, Moscow was apparently unprepared for the strength and depth of the protests that emerged in Lithuania, as well as in Latvia and Estonia.
Glasnost and perestroika were slow to come to the Baltic republics. The old first secretary of the local Communist Party, Petras Griskevicius, served as Moscow's satrap in Lithuania for more than a decade until his death in 1987. Griskevicius, who had faithfully toed an old Brezhnev policy line, was replaced by Ringaudas Songaila, also no reformer. In fact, there seemed to be a deliberate policy on Moscow's part to introduce reform slowly in the Baltic republics. Despite the resistance to perestroika provided by these party secretaries, however, domestic reforms elsewhere in the Soviet Union continued to raise expectations among the Baltic peoples that some of their long-standing grievances with Moscow might be addressed.
Since the late 1970s even casual conversation with Baltic intellectuals exposed the thinness of their loyalty to the Soviet system. While active dissidents were few, their ranks decimated by the periodic arrests of their leaders, most other Lithuanians only grudgingly participated in official Soviet life. For Lithuanians the ever-present Communist Party served as a constant reminder of their occupation by a foreign power, a power that had imposed a foreign language, foreign institutions and foreign symbols on their republic.
Demonstrations began mounting in the Baltics in 1987 after Gorbachev called for a reevaluation of the legacy of Stalin's nationalities policy. In this way, Gorbachev himself helped to legitimize questioning of the past. Crimean Tatars began protests that summer over Moscow's collective deportation of their people during World War II. Gorbachev then appointed a commission headed by Andrei Gromyko to investigate Tatar demands. Lithuanians saw these actions as a fissure in the smooth facade Moscow had once used to cover Stalin's policies, and soon began protests of their own. The Lithuanian Freedom League, a group committed to the peaceful overthrow of communist rule in Lithuania and inactive since the arrest of its principal leaders in the late 1970s, reemerged in August to sponsor a demonstration of several hundred people in Vilnius mourning the anniversary of the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.1 Similar demonstrations were held in the other Baltic republics. Though the demonstrators were harassed by police and abused in the press, they were not prosecuted for their actions.
By Lithuanian accounts these demonstrations changed the political climate of the republic. The Freedom League organized several other public protests in late 1987, some ending in confrontations with police. But as one Lithuanian has explained, "Sometime in this period we simply lost our fear, and decided that it was finally time to try and live like free people again." It was this gradual change of disposition in the republic that explains why the Freedom League's protest on February 16, 1988, to mark the seventieth anniversary of the birth of the republic, became a mass demonstration against Soviet rule, and why since that time Moscow has been unable to reassert political control in Lithuania.
Dissent and political organization was growing outside the ranks of the Communist Party. Lithuanian "Greens" organized early in the spring of 1988, the first unofficial political group the republic had seen in more than forty years. This ecology movement had an understated but obvious nationalist agenda: to counter Moscow's despoliation of Lithuania's environment. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, it targeted the Ignalia Atomic Energy Station, Lithuania's only nuclear facility, and organized marches for its closure. This group and its popular cause brought thousands more Lithuanians into the ranks of the politically active.
By 1988 Gorbachev was also encouraging the formation of "grass roots" citizen initiative groups to support his social and political programs. A group of three dozen Lithuanian scholars, however, including Landsbergis, Romualdas Ozolas and Bronius Genzialis, bypassed the Lithuanian Communist Party and declared an "initiative group" by themselves. Their purpose was to rewrite Soviet-Lithuanian history and propose changes in Lithuania's constitution to bring it in step with Gorbachev's reforms.
The group, which included a few influential party members, adopted the name Sajudis. While its initial program claimed to advance the cause of perestroika, Sajudis' ideas went well beyond the scope of what was being debated in party forums. Its founding statement spoke vaguely of creating a democratic society in Lithuania, but described the state as existing within the borders of the U.S.S.R.2 While a formal call for independence at that time seemed imprudent, the speeches of Sajudis leaders hardly masked their ultimate goal. For example Ozolas, a well-known Vilnius intellectual and journalist, opened the group's first congress by saying, "Forward to independence, the road is infinite." Landsbergis, meanwhile, spoke of a "new dawn" and invoked ancient and modern Lithuanian heros as he prodded those assembled to preserve the future of "our land and our children."3
First Secretary Songaila immediately attacked the group as "antisocialist," ensuring its isolation from officially sanctioned reform groups. But Sajudis went on to sponsor several peaceful mass demonstrations in the summer of 1988, drawing tens of thousands to protest the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. A September demonstration protesting the pact's secret protocols was broken up by special police forces. Some demonstrators were injured and more than two dozen arrested. The public outcry and protests that followed the police action led to the removal of Songaila. In late October he was replaced by Algirdas Brazauskas, formerly a party secretary for industrial affairs.
Sajudis elected Landsbergis as its president and set out to make itself the Communist Party's chief political rival in Lithuania. While Sajudis and the local Communist Party vied for the attention of Lithuanian reformers, Russian leaders within the party attempted to mobilize those Russian-speaking non-Lithuanians alienated from both streams of reform, and by November 1988 they had formed Edinstvo (Unity). This group came to represent a "pro-Moscow" position against the increasingly strident Lithuanian stand of both the local Communist Party and Sajudis.
Although Brazauskas enjoyed Gorbachev's confidence during this period, real differences were already driving a wedge between the communist parties in Moscow and Vilnius. While preaching the rights of nationalities, Gorbachev still envisioned the continuation of an "international" order where national interests were subordinate to those of the union. Brazauskas and Sajudis leaders, on the other hand, understood that the party could preserve no measure of political legitimacy in Lithuania without forcefully advocating autonomy for the republic. For them a "reconstructed" Lithuania was one in which Lithuanians were the most privileged of the republic's nationalities, without denying the rights of other groups.
Pushed by the growing strength of Sajudis, Brazauskas endorsed Lithuanian as the official language of the state. He also conceded that Lithuania's "bourgeois" 1918 declaration of independence was actually a "progressive" event in the republic's history, and sponsored legislation permitting the display of pre-Soviet flags and emblems. For the first time in decades, on February 16, 1989, the Lithuanian government permitted public celebrations on independence day.
One of the founders of Sajudis, Bronius Genzialis, then called on Lithuanians to reject their "colonial" status.4 Genzialis' speech set the stage for Sajudis to push for legislation allowing for immediate political autonomy; suddenly independence was no longer a distant goal. That speech, the law establishing Lithuanian as the republic's official language and the reconsecration of Vilnius' cathedral on February 10 helped to transform the psyche of the republic. Streets had their former names restored; pre-1940 texts were reprinted and redistributed; the Catholic Church resumed the role long denied it in public life. The private and public lives of Lithuanians were once again beginning to merge.
The largely symbolic acts of 1988 had resurrected the idea of Lithuanian nationhood. By 1989 Lithuanians began to demand political concessions extending well beyond the common Baltic agenda of economic autonomy. Sajudis was now determined to regain Lithuania's political sovereignty. A new constitution was drafted and passed by the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet in February; it stated boldly that sovereignty rested with the people of the republic. Lithuanians now took for themselves the right to organize their own political system, and gradually did so throughout the year.5 By May Lithuania's Supreme Soviet declared the state a sovereign republic, and proceeded to pass a law defining Lithuanian citizenship.6
Gorbachev, unsure of how to control the fractious Baltic republics short of direct confrontation, which he wished to avoid, sent special "Baltic Commissions" to the region on several occasions to chastise local leaders. The spring 1989 elections to the new Congress of People's Deputies, however, underscored Lithuania's commitment to sovereignty. Sajudis captured 36 of the republic's 42 seats. Later, in May, the first of a series of republic-wide opinion polls showed Sajudis with an approval rating of 68 percent, compared to the Communist Party's 22 percent.7
Against this background Brazauskas battled back to reestablish some credibility for the local Communist Party. He proposed in June that the local party separate from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). This move made him immensely popular in the republic. His proposal gained further support by the fall, after the first session of the Congress of People's Deputies convened, and the Central Committee plenum on nationality affairs ended, without concrete proposals for granting political autonomy to union republics.
While Gorbachev was willing to allow the three Baltic republics greater control over their economies, the U.S.S.R.'s Supreme Soviet and Congress of People's Deputies overrode Lithuania's 1989 laws on sovereignty, citizenship and military conscription. Lithuania then asserted that its own constitutional changes superseded those laws of the U.S.S.R. The long lead time before most of these provisions could be implemented, however, meant a direct confrontation with Moscow could still be averted.
The political fate of all involved in Lithuania seemed to ride on support for the republic's autonomy. The popularity of Gorbachev and the party continued to decline; from January to November of 1989 nearly 9,000 party members in Lithuania turned in their cards. The position of the local Communist Party was further undermined by Lithuania's unilateral decision to allow competing political parties and candidates to run in the 1990 elections to its Supreme Soviet. Sajudis responded to a dip in its own popularity by giving the Supreme Soviet of Lithuania three months to decide on a precise timetable for independence. Brazauskas, meanwhile, cemented his stature within the republic when, on December 20, after nearly six months of pressure by Moscow to back down, he led more than two-thirds of Lithuania's Communist Party Congress in voting to splinter from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Although a small group of Moscow's supporters remained affiliated with the trunk party, the decision to form a separate Communist Party of Lithuania (CPL) was enormously popular in the republic.
Brazauskas was immediately summoned to Moscow following the split in the party. After a Central Committee plenum failed to close the growing estrangement between Moscow and Vilnius, however, Gorbachev decided to "barnstorm" the republic in a personal effort to persuade Lithuanians to opt for loyalty to the union.
After his tour of the republic in January, senior Sajudis leaders felt Gorbachev had finally come to recognize the emotional pull and political will of Lithuanian nationalism, but that he still failed to grasp their profound commitment to independence.
The sentiment was best expressed by Vidmante Jasukaityte, a writer and antidraft activist who argued with Gorbachev at a street meeting in Vilnius-broadcast nationwide on Soviet television. For all his innovation and daring as a political leader, she complained, Gorbachev could not empathize with the plight of an occupied people or appreciate the "spiritual energy" that united Lithuanians in their struggle.
I visited Lithuania immediately after Gorbachev and conducted interviews with several Sajudis leaders.8 The leadership had not at that time decided on a precise timetable for independence. All were convinced, however, that Lithuanian aspirations for full political autonomy would not be met by Gorbachev and could not be satisfied within the confines of the U.S.S.R. While they were aware of how slow and complex any movement toward independence would be, the pursuit of the goal united them. All other questions were negotiable, particularly if the compromise would leave Lithuania with favorably adjusted borders and a potentially self-sufficient economy.
Deputy Prime Minister Ozolas, then editor of the Sajudis publication Atgimimas, was willing to accept half-measures en route to independence. While ultimately supporting a separate state, he believed a confederative arrangement allowing the garrisoning of Soviet troops and free transit through the republic was acceptable as an interim stage. Ozolas did not trust Gorbachev to deal fairly with the Lithuanians, however, and accused him of trying to play different nationalities against one another in an effort to discredit independence movements in the Baltics and the Caucasus as well. Bronislavas Kuzmiskas, a former law professor and now a deputy chairman of Lithuania's Supreme Soviet, went further, accusing Moscow of inciting Polish and Russian residents of the republic.
Landsbergis was more preoccupied with what he perceived as the need for Lithuanians to achieve independence in short order. A generation of young Lithuanians have never lived in an independent state, and Landsbergis feared that if the idea of independence was not revitalized the nation would have no future. Landsbergis sees himself a man able to accomplish that task; he personifies the "spiritual energy" of Lithuania's independence movement. Although his enormous personal strength does not translate well into American political culture, his leadership qualities are well understood in Lithuania. But even there, he makes a more plausible national hero than political doyen.
A professional musician and third-generation intellectual, one of the few in the republic, Landsbergis has never been a member of the Communist Party. Although both his father and grandfather, artist/architect and playwright respectively, were themselves well-known Lithuanian nationalists, Landsbergis was never a public figure until the formation of Sajudis. There is no doubt, however, that he himself is a staunch nationalist; many of Moscow's early attacks against Sajudis were directed at Landsbergis personally. He is strongly identified with the idea of Lithuanian nationalism, and may have been chosen to lead the movement for this reason alone.
Landsbergis is a romantic, but realistic nonetheless. He was confident that Sajudis would handily win the February 1990 elections to the Supreme Soviet, and was equally convinced that Moscow could block any subsequent efforts to reassert Lithuanian independence. Landsbergis feared Gorbachev was simply introducing the trappings of democracy to provide a new platform from which Moscow could preserve the Soviet state and continue the domination of Russians over non-Russians. The Red Army had occupied Baku in January and, as he prepared to leave his home to go to Riga to mediate a settlement between Azerbaijani and Armenian national fronts, Landsbergis was deeply disturbed. He worried that the principle of using force to preserve domestic order would also be applied to Lithuania.
Despite his doubts about its possible outcome, Landsbergis was convinced that independence must be pursued. Lithuanians would have to earn their own freedom, he argued, and he understood that the West would put the concerns of geopolitics above those of ideology, predicting "We will prove inconvenient for America." For Landsbergis freedom is not open to compromise: a subjugated people are not free. And while freedom is a goal to which all should aspire, the fate of any individual Lithuanian is subordinate to the survival of the nation.
He is a modest man who does not seek responsibility, but who will accept it. In this way, Landsbergis understands himself to be an accidental hero. He takes inspiration from the character of Dr. Stockmann in Ibsen's Enemy of the People, a man willing to sacrifice his own family's financial security in his effort to close typhoid-infected public baths. Landsbergis is fond of quoting Stockmann's closing lines:
This is what I have discovered, you see: the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.
Landsbergis was right about the February 1990 elections to the Supreme Soviet; Sajudis did win handily. It had campaigned on a platform calling openly for the immediate establishment of an independent republic, a state ruled by law, and one that protected personal freedom and the right to ownership of property. When the voting was completed, Sajudis controlled over 75 percent of the seats in the new legislature, winning almost all of the contests in the major centers, Vilnius and Kaunas.
After an uphill battle Lithuania's breakaway Communist Party took just under a third of the seats. Two weeks before the election Brazauskas helped pass legislation declaring illegal the Soviet incorporation of Lithuania; with less than a week until the vote he too was calling for an independent state, but through graduated steps. It is difficult to know precisely what occasioned Brazauskas' change of heart. Many Sajudis leaders view Brazauskas cynically, and explain all his shifts of position merely as political posturing to preserve some authority for the CPL and, indirectly, Moscow. Brazauskas' actions did unquestionably increase his popularity; both he and the party's second secretary, Vladimir Berezov, were easy victors along with several other party leaders. Most of their party's victories came in Klaipeda, and in rural districts where collective-farm chairmen and local officials dominated the voting lists.
The CPSU was roundly defeated, taking less than five percent of the available seats. None of the party's principal leaders were elected, including the first and second secretaries, Vladislav Shved and Myukolas Burokevicius. No district was safe enough to elect these two: Shved was a founder of the pro-Moscow Edinstvo and Burokevicius is a historian who has chronicled the "accomplishments" of Soviet rule in Lithuania.
After the elections, Gorbachev finally recognized that Lithuania's secession was imminent. On March 8, he again hurriedly summoned Brazauskas to Moscow. Lithuanians were presented with an ultimatum. They could have independence only if the U.S.S.R. were fully compensated for all its postwar investments in the republic, if Klaipeda were ceded to the U.S.S.R., and if Lithuania were restored to its October 1939 borders. When Lithuanians did in fact declare independence two days later, Gorbachev immediately abandoned even these stiff conditions for exit, making secession conditional on a new Soviet law.
Lithuania's newly elected Supreme Soviet convened on March 10, 1990, the soonest possible date, and within 24 hours it had elected a president, changed the name of the nation and declared an independent republic. A rush of provisional legislation followed, including a "Provisional Fundamental Law" with 132 articles, most of which fused features of the proposed new constitution with the program of Sajudis.9
The timing of the assembly's declaration underscored its basic distrust of Gorbachev. A few weeks earlier Gorbachev had called for the creation of a new office in Moscow, that of the Soviet president, a position with extraordinary powers relative to his old post as leader of the Communist Party. One of his projected new powers was the ability to declare a state of emergency in any republic, a provision later limited somewhat in the final legislation.
Lithuania timed its exit to precede Gorbachev's election as the new president. More important, it withdrew from the union before Gorbachev had even announced the new law on secession. In fact, on the date the republic declared its independence there was no law regarding secession. Law or no law, however, Lithuanians still claimed exemption based on the illegal way in which they were incorporated by the Soviet Union.
The declaration's timing also reflected symbolic considerations. To have the first quasi-democratically elected legislature immediately lay claim to Lithuanian sovereignty emphasized the republic's complete rejection of Soviet rule. Sajudis leaders believed they could have pushed a vote for secession through Lithuania's old Supreme Soviet, but that would have left Brazauskas to preside over the new state. Sajudis wanted to turn the act of declaring independence into a symbolic gesture, and understood the declaration in that way. It believed room would still be left for discussion with Moscow, as there had been with earlier legislation that contradicted Soviet law. Gorbachev's message on the terms of secession, sent earlier through Brazauskas, had itself raised the expectation of negotiation.
As with its earlier laws on citizenship and sovereignty, Lithuanian leaders were seeking recognition of the special relationship between the Baltic states and the U.S.S.R. During his January visit to Lithuania, Gorbachev had strongly hinted that this kind of recognition would be forthcoming. Lithuanians hoped that the occasion of a formal declaration of independence would finally prompt concrete proposals from Moscow. Even though asserting independence, the republic still promised to meet its economic obligations to the union. It called only for new national identity cards and urged Lithuanians to avoid Soviet military service when Gorbachev's position became fixed: the illegality of Lithuania's actions precluded formal negotiations, or even informal talks, between the two sides.
Lithuanians understood that there must be a transitional stage before real independence could be achieved. The interdependence of the Lithuanian and Soviet economies had to be addressed, along with Soviet security interests. The questionable international status of Lithuania's current borders, which were formally protested by Byelorussia, also needed to be reviewed. But these questions have become nearly irrelevant to a Lithuanian leadership not recognized as governing an independent state.
Landsbergis sees his greatest task not as governing Lithuanians, but as sustaining their support for independence. For now he seems to be succeeding. An April poll indicated that 91 percent of the republic favored an independent Lithuania, including 63 percent of the non-Lithuanian population. Of those supporting independence, however, 31 percent believed the decision should not have been taken so quickly.10 Landsbergis' own popularity has also increased dramatically, even among Russians and Poles in the republic. But more people still consider Brazauskas to be Lithuania's best potential leader.11
Gorbachev had trouble deciding how to force Moscow's will on Lithuanians. Before settling on an economic embargo, he appears to have considered a number of strategies: invasion, seizing power in the name of the CPSU and the assertion of presidential rule. An embargo was what Sajudis expected, and perhaps the choice they most feared. Instead of breaking Lithuanian resolve, however, Gorbachev's handling of the crisis appears to have contributed to the republic's growing sense of unity. Moscow's repeated demonstrations of military force in the weeks following the declaration convinced Lithuanians that they did, in fact, live in an occupied country. The seizure of the party headquarters, the main printing press and other public buildings, all in the name of the CPSU, further alienated the republic. Moscow's sponsoring of anti-independence rallies also discredited the regime and angered both Russian and Lithuanian workers, as pro-Moscow Edinstvo members were given time off with pay in order to demonstrate.12
Moscow's harsh actions have pushed some equivocal Lithuanian politicians to embrace the new government. Even Brazauskas, for example, while privately critical of Sajudis' strategy for independence, began to work more actively in his post with the new government as deputy prime minister for industrial production after Soviet troops seized his office in the Communist Party headquarters. Since then he has been trying to help the republic absorb the economic shocks of Moscow's embargo.
The April embargo on energy introduced new stresses into the Landsbergis government. Layoffs of workers generated pressure toward compromise with Moscow. But while some may see compromise as the only intelligent course, and limited political autonomy as preferable to none at all, most Lithuanians right now seem to regard even defeat as advancing their march toward eventual independence and preferable to life in a half-free state.
The West may have come to trust Gorbachev and believes he should be given the breathing space necessary for his reforms to succeed. But Lithuanians seem to distrust all Soviet reformers and believe breaking Moscow's hold on power not only benefits themselves but all Soviet peoples.
Gorbachev clearly recognizes the threat he faces in the Baltics. Since Lithuania's declaration his position has been constant: any republic can leave as long as it abides by the provisions of the new Soviet law on secession. This principle has now been applied to Latvia and Estonia as well.
This is no mere legal nicety. The new law requires that two-thirds of a republic vote for secession in a popular referendum in which no campaigning would be allowed. Separate referendums may be held in autonomous regions and minority enclaves. If the referendum is defeated, no new request for secession could be made for 10 years. If the referendum succeeds, a five-year period would follow for negotiating separate secession agreements with each Soviet republic. During this interim Soviet law would remain in force and a call by 10 percent of the population would force a new referendum. At the end of this period the Congress of People's Deputies must ratify the republic's secession. Additionally, the seceding republic must also pay for the resettlement of all those who wish to remain within the U.S.S.R.13 This law, in effect, is a decision by Gorbachev to preserve the current boundaries of the Soviet Union well into the future.
Gorbachev has thus been unwilling to talk with Lithuania as long as the republic continues to place itself above Soviet law. Unlike Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania could probably secede successfully even given the new law; only 20 percent of the republic's residents are non-Lithuanians. Accepting the law's validity, however, not only defers and alters Lithuania's plans for secession but also sharply curtails the hopes for independence of others-Estonians, Latvians, Moldavians and western Ukrainians, all of whom were forcibly incorporated after the same 1939 pact between Hitler and Stalin. The law makes secession especially difficult for these republics. Estonians constitute 61 percent of the population of their republic, Latvians 52 percent of theirs, Moldavians 64 percent, and western Ukrainians less than half.
Independence for Latvia and Estonia is of critical concern to Lithuania, which sees the survivability of its own state as predicated on the economic vitality of the reconstituted Baltic Council. Nationalists in other republics have openly sided with Lithuania, aware that their future will be shaped by how the current confrontation is resolved. The Estonian parliament has formally recognized the new Lithuanian republic and promised it aid. The Estonians, however, have chosen a different path to independence, declaring themselves an occupied nation no longer bound by Soviet law, rather than an independent state. Estonian support for Moscow is diminishing. Forty-nine percent in a recent poll named either Russia or the U.S.S.R. as their greatest enemy.
Support for Moscow is rapidly eroding in Latvia as well. Latvia's new Supreme Soviet voted for independence on May 4, 1990, but is trying to break with Moscow in stages. Tensions between the pro-independence National Front and the pro-union Inter-front have increased sharply. Pro-independence forces took control of Riga's city council; pro-union forces provoked a split within Latvia's own Communist Party. Battles have escalated between the Riga government and the local Communist Party over control of the media, and city and party property. Now that the stakes have become the control of the republic itself, tensions have escalated even higher. Violent public confrontations have occurred with anti-independence mobs storming parliament buildings in Riga, as well as Tallinn.
The political situation in the western Ukraine has also deteriorated. Demonstrations have broken out in support of Lithuanian independence, and pro-nationalist city and provincial Soviets have promised Lithuanians assistance. Western Ukrainians have called for the establishment of an independent Galician state, prompting threats of unspecified sanctions from the Ukrainian government and Communist Party if "antisocialist" activities do not cease.
Moldavian nationalists have escalated their demands too. By late March rallies and demonstrations that used to take place only on Sundays now crippled work on Mondays. Moldavia's Supreme Soviet has almost equal numbers of separatist and pro-Moscow deputies. The division increasingly diminishes the assembly's capacity for decision-making. Nationalists are also fighting for control of the media and have accused Moscow's correspondents of a "lack of objectivity," banning them from the republic's legislature.
The Lithuanian crisis has increased political instability within Russia itself. In addition to the well-publicized demonstrations in support of Lithuania's position in Moscow and Leningrad, backing has also come from national fronts in smaller cities like Rostov-on-the-Don. Generally, Russian attitudes toward Lithuanian independence appear to be more complex and varied than official Soviet reports suggest.
Gorbachev apparently assumed that by making a negative example of Lithuania he could preempt other nationalist protest. This may be yet another of his miscalculations regarding nationality relations. Support for nationalist and separatist movements has been growing rapidly for the past three years throughout the U.S.S.R., and events in Lithuania appear only to have increased their backing. At the same time, Gorbachev has yet to create a policy precedent that can easily be applied to other rebellious populations. The economic embargo of Lithuania has hurt not only that republic but neighboring Soviet regions as well; such a tactic used repeatedly could have serious economic consequences for the entire Soviet Union.
West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President François Mitterrand offered a compromise formula in April allowing Lithuanians to reassert their independence after a cooling-off period of two years. In mid-May Prime Minister Prunskiene succeeded in meeting with Gorbachev to try starting a negotiation on these terms.
A basic tension still remains, however, between Moscow's will to enforce most of the provisions of its secession law and Lithuania's desire to protect its declaration of independence. Even a two-year freeze on Lithuanian independence probably will not ease this fundamental difference between Gorbachev's goals and those of nationalists in the Baltics, the Ukraine, Moldavia and the Caucasus.
Gorbachev's actions in Lithuania have been shaped by his desire to delay a resolution to the nationalities problem until the Soviet economy can be successfully reformed. While Western leaders seem to have accepted this premise, many non-Russian leaders in the Soviet Union have not. For them the root of the U.S.S.R.'s problems lies in its flawed political foundations, which assert multinationalism while legitimizing the domination of Russian interests. They oppose a single all-union economy and advocate the development of independent, economically self-sufficient republics.
Gorbachev's strategy is just the opposite. He is betting that economic vitality will ensure political integrity, that he can forge new bases of internal political cohesion once the process of economic decay in the U.S.S.R. has been arrested. But here, too, Gorbachev's energies may be misplaced. Numerous examples in modern central European history argue persuasively for the pervasiveness of nationalism, even when it runs counter to the economic welfare of its proponents. Furthermore, Gorbachev's actions in Lithuania may make economic recovery for the U.S.S.R. more rather than less problematic. The economic productivity of the Baltic republics, one of the most advanced and technologically sophisticated regions of the Soviet Union, could be seriously upset in the future. Policies of economic coercion cut two ways; nations once restrained through economic embargo can alternately proceed to withhold economic cooperation.
How sound Gorbachev's policies in Lithuania really are will only become clearer with time. His actions may seem justified if he can use perestroika to turn the Soviet empire into a democratic multinational state. It is more likely, however, that Gorbachev's reforms will not reflect the agenda of nationalists in the Baltics, other Western borderlands or the Caucasus.
Regardless of the outcome in Lithuania, the Bush administration is wisely following the course of nonintervention in Soviet domestic affairs. Moralists may argue that the United States must now follow through on its fifty years of support for the precept of Lithuanian independence. The mistake of the United States, however, may well have been its long support for an abstraction that it had no real intention of defending. Nonintervention means the United States must not be a direct party to either the breakup or the artificial resuscitation of the Soviet state. As separatist movements and nationalist protests continue to build in the U.S.S.R., Gorbachev may repeatedly turn to the West to help legitimize policies designed to bind a crumbling empire. Western aid and encouragement may reduce some of the domestic pressures on Gorbachev, but the West must not become perestroika's guarantor. The only way for perestroika to succeed is with the Soviet peoples' own support.
4 Vozrozhdenie, no. 9, March 1989, p. 1.
6 This decree and all other documents from 1989 are found in Lietuva, Litva, Lithuania (Vilnius), 1989, a volume prepared by the Lithuanian U.S.S.R. Deputies group for distribution at the second session of the Congress of People's Deputies.
7 Tsentr Issledovaniia obshchestvennogo mneniia, ANLI, Kommunisticheskaia Partiia Litvy: 1989, (Vilnius), 1990.
8 All the interviews quoted here were conducted in Vilnius between January 26 and February 1, 1990.
10 Ibid., April 5, 1990, p. 1.
11 Ibid.; respondents could list any number of leaders in their response. Prunskiene's leadership was endorsed by 44 percent of the respondents and Ozolas' by 20 percent.
12 Vremiia, April 26, 1990.