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The Trial of Lithuania

Only an invertebrate degenerate could remain on the fence in such a quarrel.” So wrote an enraged man in 1922. Mr. Ernest Harrison, formerly British vice-consul in Kaunas and Vilnius, was describing the dispute between Lithuania and Poland, rather than that between Lithuania and Russia. This small, solemn country still has the power to seize the loyalties of outsiders.

At the time of this writing, during the last week of March, the relationship—if that is the word—between Lithuania and the Soviet Union has slithered a long way toward the edge of catastrophe. Following the elections to the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet on February 24 and March 4, at which candidates backed by the Sajudis independence movement gained an absolute majority, the new parliament declared that the nation was now resuming its sovereign independence, illegally violated in 1940 by Soviet annexation. This declaration was precipitated by Mikhail Gorbachev’s sudden step on the constitutional accelerator in Moscow: his acquisition of supreme emergency powers as president, and new legislation redefining (and making far more difficult) the right of a Soviet republic to secede from the USSR. So the declaration was issued on March 8 in Vilnius, a reaffirmation by the new parliamentary majority of Lithuania’s original declaration of independence in 1918.

There are people, in Russia and Lithuania, who genuinely hope that the Lithuanian crisis will end in what Polish euphemists call “a national tragedy”: martial law, mass arrests, the restoration of the pro-Moscow rump of local Communists to power in Vilnius. There is, as President Landsbergis and his colleagues are trying to tell us, just such a dark coalition of Russian chauvinists, old Stalinists, and frustrated jailers who would engineer any calamity that might shatter President Gorbachev’s reputation and halt the movement to democracy. But the leaders, Gorbachev and Landsbergis, and the ministers and advisers around them, both dread a collision. The trouble is that, as the events of late March showed, the situation is not safely in the grip of those “rational actors.” The army is taking its own decisions and letting Gorbachev take the blame for them, and acting in blatant alliance with that discredited fragment of the Lithuanian Communist party that remains “loyal.” To drive a column of tanks past the windows of the Supreme Council, the army’s opening gesture, was a gesture of anachronistic madness. It did not so much frighten the Lithuanians as remind them violently why they had decided to escape from the Soviet empire.

Far too many things could go wrong. Among the burning matches that could ignite the flames of a “provocation” are: the continuing hunt for Lithuanian deserters, the dispute over who controls the frontiers, the seizure of more public or private buildings, the roundup of privately held firearms, the search for (imaginary) Lithuanian snipers who fire at Soviet troops, the order to disband the volunteer militia, the nonproblem of the security of plants and power stations.

Ahead, a pessimist can foresee the expulsion of Americans and Canadians of Lithuanian parentage, the cutting of all outside communications, the seizure of radio, television, and newspaper offices. Foreign journalists are already being ushered impatiently out of the country; the last television lights go out, leaving the Lithuanians alone with the Russians in the dark. It will take one excessive move by one reckless booby in or out of uniform, Russian or Lithuanian, to release the avalanche.

Most dangerous of all, I think, is the opportunity the crisis offers to the leaders of the non-Lithuanian minorities. Some 3.67 million people live in the country, of whom 2.9 million—79 percent—are Lithuanians by language and culture. But there is a Russian minority of 344,000 and a Polish minority, densely concentrated around Vilnius and in the southern districts of Lithuania, of 258,000. The leadership of both communities, especially of the Poles, would like nothing better than to issue a public invitation to the Soviet forces of order to “rescue” them from Lithuanian “oppression.” In fact, they have already begun to publish flesh-creeping nonsense about the supposed danger to Polish identity inherent in Lithuanian independence. But being the sort of men they are, they will not actually issue their invitation until the secret order comes from Moscow.

The outside world remains miserable about the crisis but irresolute. On the one hand, nobody wishes to make life even more difficult for President Gorbachev by encouraging President Vytautis Landsbergis; there is the hope that some compromises can still be found which will allow Lithuania to resume statehood by the end of the year without pitching a defeated Gorbachev to his enemies and the enemies of the reform process itself.

On the other hand, the most powerful nations in the West refused to recognize the legality of the Soviet annexation of all three Baltic republics in 1940. This does not automatically constrain them to recognize Lithuanian independence now; as the British put it, it is the de facto authority of a government within its territory that is recognized by other countries, and that is not yet established in Lithuania. But it puts those states under a painful moral obligation. And, as in the case of Canada, with its large and vociferous Lithuanian population in Toronto and elsewhere, there can be political leverage as well. The outcome is that the West breathes a great deal of sympathetic hot air over the Lithuanians, while extracting one assurance after another from Gorbachev and his lieutenants that there will be no resort to force. This is fence-sitting, and the late vice-consul Mr. Harrison would see here an assembly of his “invertebrate degenerates.” But for the moment it will have to do.

In Vilnius, the public’s self-control has been phenomenal, not much has changed. Television suggested that the people were constantly on the streets, chanting national songs and weeping with joy under their tricolor. Lithuanians, however, are economical with political gestures. When the moment is right, they will turn out by the hundreds of thousands, but for the most part they have behaved as if an attempt to break out of the Soviet Union was a monthly routine. “We do have common sense,” they say, as if measuring a natural resource. They are very un-Slav.

A foreign visitor sees Lithuania as a magical place. Seemingly infinite forests, rivers with shy female names like Neris or Nemunas, the city of Vilnius, which calls itself (like Edinburgh) an “Athens of the North.” Much of the old town, certainly, is built in postbaroque classical styles; there are enormous temples with Doric or Ionian capitals. But Vilnius (Wilno, Vilna) is really more of a Jerusalem. It is the birthplace of three irreconcilable histories: of the medieval Lithuanian state, whose capital was put here by the pagan ruler Gediminas; of Polish anti-Russian patriotism (the poet Adam Mickiewicz, the liberator Jozef Pilsudski, the novelist Tadeusz Konwicki all began here); and of eastern Judaism, which made Vilnius the intellectual capital of the Jewish world. The Jews were murdered during the Nazi occupation. The Poles, once the ruling caste, are now an underclass in the city.

War didn’t destroy this wonderful town. The Old City is run-down, and many of the enormous baroque churches are still “museums” or simply used as warehouses. But in Lithuania political change has run far ahead of physical and economic reform. Here, in utter contrast to Warsaw or Budapest, the street scene belongs still to the 1970s of European communism. The shops are almost empty and queues stretch along the sidewalks; there is money, but nothing to buy with it. Subsidies still shape the cultural landscape; every little association for cultural this- and-that has its own small magazine, badly printed but full of lofty, unhurried thought. Intellectuals, nominally holding down several underpaid jobs at once, are always free to take hours or days off on impulse. It can be expensive to bribe one’s way into a restaurant, but—once inside—the food is cheap and very good. So is the theater. So is the (subsidized) bread: the best black rye in Europe. I stood in line for it early one morning outside the bakery on Konarskas Street, and bought two loaves still hot; they filled my hotel room with a rich, feral scent like that of a forest floor after summer rain.

So far, Sajudis has not had the time or opportunity to dismantle this Brezhnevite economy by introducing market forces, canceling subsidies, deregulating prices and letting them soar, although the collective farms are thinking of going private by selling stock to their own peasants. All that is for the near future, and meanwhile the Lithuanians refuse to feel any nostalgia for the frowzy, static economy they are about to leave.

They will leave it cautiously, all the same. Lithuanian politicians talk about a gradual transition—nothing like the headlong leap of Poland into the free market. A recent document, the report on the economy of an independent Lithuania prepared by a special parliamentary commission, shows why. The country is 97 percent dependent on the Soviet Union for fuel supplies, mostly oil and gas, and gets them at artificially low prices. The report observes that “at world market prices, we would be running a deficit of 700 million dollars for oil alone,” and concludes that the energy problem is “the foremost question that must be answered without delay, it would be the basis for our whole economy, for its stable functioning; it is the basis for normal life.” Some hopeful politicians suggest that new Danish gas finds in the Baltic could have their land terminal and refinery in Lithuania. But most people admit that this dependence on the USSR will go on, and must be regulated by an agreement. Lithuania has a good agricultural surplus, and a fairly high technical level in electronics and other light industries, but, again, the report recommends “exports directed mainly to the East, with gradual orientation towards the West as quality of production improves.” And “Lithuania is of interest to Western companies as a springboard to the Eastern market.”

The last of the report’s proposed “immediate steps” is: “preparation of a plan for continuous economic functioning and alternatives under conditions of economic blockade.” That plan had better be good. I have heard Lithuanians boast that the USSR is actually dependent on them, that there are twenty-two factories making products whose lack would bring the Soviet Union to its knees. This is a sick joke. And any attempt to assist Lithuania from outside—unless by airlift—would have to go through either the port of Klaipeda, which the Soviet navy would probably close, or across the short stretch of common frontier with Poland, which has a road but no rail link.

Lithuania may be slightly less inefficient than Russia, even after sixty years of occupation, but what sort of measure is that? An impassioned woman patriot on Vilnius TV the other night said that “in five years, we must be living at least as well as the Finns.” The parliamentary report, in contrast, points out that unit production in Lithuania consumes between 1.5 and two times as much energy, wood, and metal as in Sweden or Finland, and that heating a square meter of living space takes sixty kilos of fuel a year in Vilnius and only twenty in Helsinki.

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