The Baltic Revolt

A chilling photograph in the morning papers of January 14 showed a group of Lithuanians pushing against a Soviet tank in a desperate effort to stop its advance; under the tank one could see the limp legs of a woman wearing black leather boots. This photograph, which stayed in my mind during a recent visit to the Soviet Union’s Baltic republics, quickly faded from world attention after war broke out in the Middle East. Yet the two events—the Soviet crackdown in Lithuania and the conflict in the Persian Gulf—are not unrelated: there is good reason to believe that Mikhail Gorbachev chose to move against the independence movement of Lithuania at a time when most people would be distracted by events in the Middle East and when the US government, eager for Soviet support against Iraq, would mute its criticism of Soviet repression.

If these were Gorbachev’s calculations, they were wrong. Many people in the Soviet Union and in other countries around the world were angered by the Soviet army’s attack on government buildings in the Lithuanian capital, which culminated in the storming of the television tower in Vilnius on January 13, leaving fourteen people dead and more than six hundred wounded. Mr. Gorbachev’s claims that he did not authorize the attack—a response he has made in similar circumstances before—further undermined his credibility.

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Moscow and other republic capitals. The crowds, the largest to take part in a public protest since Gorbachev came to power, demonstrated against the violence in Lithuania and against communism, and for their independence from central authority. In the West there were demands to end economic aid to the Soviet Union and to cancel the Moscow summit meeting of Bush and Gorbachev. Medical supplies were sent directly to Vilnius from Western Europe to help treat the wounded. The Bush administration, at first reluctant to speak out against the massacre, responded to congressional and popular pressure by issuing several strong statements. Its decision to postpone the summit meeting, although not officially linked with events in the Baltic states, was nevertheless greeted there as a welcome gesture of support.

Only in the West have we heard people question Mr. Gorbachev’s responsibility for the violence in Vilnius (“Did he know about it in advance?” “Did he authorize it?”). When a colleague and I went to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia on behalf of Helsinski Watch during the last week of January,1 we found literally unanimous agreement among the many people we talked to that Gorbachev was their enemy. What, they asked, would he do next?

Admiring Gorbachev and his reforms, many in the West have glossed over the pattern of violence that has punctuated his rule. Gorbachev has not hesitated to use military force to suppress dissent in situations where Communist party dominance seemed threatened. On at least five occasions before the recent Baltic violence, beginning in December 1986, the Soviet army used tanks and lethal force against civilians, resulting in some two hundred deaths.2 Partly because these events occurred in remote parts of the USSR that were off limits to the foreign press and received relatively little attention abroad, Gorbachev was not taxed with responsibility for them. Now, when his move to the right has been well documented,3 many in the West find it difficult to square their image of Gorbachev as the father of reform with his recent attempts to acquire dictatorial powers. They prefer to see him as a “hostage to the military” rather than as the man who masterminded the violence in Lithuania.

A careful study of available information indicates that the violence in Lithuania and Latvia in January was in fact the result of a failed coup, an unsuccessful Soviet attempt to overthrow the pro-independence governments of the Baltic republics and to establish direct presidential rule by Mr. Gorbachev. The plan appears to have been drafted in Moscow with Gorbachev’s approval and carried out by the Soviet military establishment at the instigation of local Communist party chiefs, who gave the Party and military leaders in Moscow misleading assurances it would work.

This was the view of many informed people with whom we spoke during our recent trip to the Baltics. “The scenario was quite precise,” a Latvian member of parliament told us, “to crush the Baltics on January 15 when the Gulf war began.” Again and again we heard, in effect, that what had happened was a performance according to a “script written in Moscow.”

This was confirmed by several prominent Soviet officials who came to Lithuania from other parts of the USSR to investigate the January events. USSR Supreme Soviet deputy Stepan Sulashkin spent two days in Lithuania right after the violence, and on January 17 concluded that “a well-planned action is being led … from the center, in Moscow,” and was “probably led by the KGB.” Levon Ter-Petrosian, the nationalist president of Armenia, who was sent to Lithuania by the Kremlin shortly after January 13, later claimed that he had helped to prevent the imposition there of presidential rule.

In early February, a Soviet military organization known as Shield, which favors democratic reforms, sent a five-member investigative commission to Vilnius. The commission, composed of retired and active army officers including two who are currently USSR People’s Deputies, conducted a two-week investigation and released a report on February 11 asserting that the events in Vilnius between January 11 and 13 were an

attempt to overthrow the government with the use of the armed forces, the internal troops of the MVD and the KGB of the USSR, with the aim of reestablishing the political power of the Communist party, in particular the Communist party of Lithuania.

The report went on to say that “the Soviet president could not but know about the planned joint actions” and that “these actions could not be carried out without his personal permission.” According to Shield, the overthrow was planned earlier, coordinated and approved “by the Center” (a common Soviet expression for the presidential bureaucracy), and set in motion by the Communist party of Lithuania.

Several members of the Shield commission were detained on contrived charges at the railroad station when they were leaving Vilnius after the investigation, but they were released after a few days. Their report, compiled by high-ranking officials who know the Soviet military system and who have proved to be reliable in the past, contains the most forthright conclusions to appear so far from a Soviet source. Its view that the overthrow of the Baltic republic governments was planned well in advance was given support by the publication on January 29 in the independent Moscow newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta of a secret Communist party memorandum dated August 29, 1990, which set out plans for a crackdown in Lithuania drafted by the Communist party Politburo member Oleg Shenin and signed by the Party’s deputy general secretary, Vladimir Ivashko.

Such plans are also consistent with a general tightening of control in the Soviet Union since last October, when President Gorbachev began to introduce “law and order” policies, including the reorganization of the government in order to increase his own presidential powers, the appointment of conservatives to key positions, the drafting of a union treaty to bring the republics into line, and frequent threats to establish presidential rule in the separatist republics. Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze’s resignation in December, with his warning that dictatorship and bloodshed were in store, was based in part on his knowledge of a plan to crack down on the Baltics. “The course of events could lead to a repetition of what happened in Tbilisi and Baku,” Shevardnadze predicted in an interview published in Moscow News on January 2. In a speech on February 20, he remarked that events in the Baltics showed that his “warnings were not without foundation.”

Ever since Lithuania declared its independence of Moscow in March 1990 (followed by Latvia in May), the Soviet government has responded with threats or displays of force, including an economic blockade of Lithuania that lasted from April until the end of June, and with campaigns of disinformation aimed at inflaming ethnic passions among minority groups in the Baltics. Russian residents of Lithuania were falsely told, for example, that Lithuanian leaders were determined to treat them as second-class citizens and to encourage them to leave the republic. Then, late last fall, a series of violent acts apparently planned as provocations began to take place in Latvia, which, it appears, was originally the first of the Baltic republics selected for a takeover. Because ethnic Latvians make up only a narrow majority of the republic’s population, Latvia is generally considered by the Soviets to be the most vulnerable of the Baltic republics.

The provocations in Latvia were mainly the work of the Black Berets, local riot-control units otherwise known as OMON (Special Function Militia Units) and directly controlled by the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). Roving bands of Black Berets stopped cars and beat up people in the streets, creating a general atmosphere of tension in which intervention by Soviet authorities could be more easily justified. In December a series of mysterious bomb explosions began in and around Party buildings in Riga. No one has been arrested and the bombs did not usually inflict serious damage. Many believe the Black Berets responsible, and suspect that the explosions were intended to create the impression that the Party was being threatened, thus providing a pretext for President Gorbachev to intervene.

On January 2, in an attempt to silence the outspoken Latvian press, Black Berets seized the Riga press building in which local newspapers and magazines are published, claiming that it belonged to the Latvian Communist party; the printers and other employees in the building went on strike, closing down several newspapers; but by January 5 an abbreviated version of the pro-independence newspaper Diena was back on the stands, printed by a sympathetic book publisher. Violent attacks by Black Berets continued in Latvia and resulted in the deaths of six people, five of whom were killed during an attack by Black Berets on the Latvian Interior Ministry building in Riga on January 20.

In Vilnius, pro-Moscow forces could not count on Black Berets to do their dirty work, since the Lithuanian Black Berets are, on the whole, loyal to the Lithuanian government. In early January, we were told, conservative forces in Moscow took advantage of political tensions within the Lithuanian government by advancing the timetable for a coup in Vilnius using Soviet army troops. The political unrest that caught Moscow’s attention was created by new economic policies introduced on January 6 by the Lithuanian prime minister, Kazimiera Prunskiene. Ms. Prunskiene, a former Communist considered to be more pragmatic and flexible in her attitudes toward Moscow than the Lithuanian president, Vytautas Landsbergis, put into effect price rises that led immediately to strikes and protests. On January 7, President Landsbergis called both Ms. Prunskiene’s policies and her authority into question by announcing that the government would reconsider the price rises. On January 8, when the parliament voted to rescind the price increases, Ms. Prunskiene resigned.

On the same day she had a meeting with Gorbachev in Moscow. She later said that she asked him for assurances that Soviet troops would not intervene in Lithuania and that he flatly refused to give them. Before the day was over, more than one hundred military vehicles rolled through the streets of Vilnius in an ominous display of force. On January 9, a division of paratroop forces from a Russian base was flown in, ostensibly to arrest draft resisters who had refused to serve in the Soviet army. (Many thousands of draft-age men in the three Baltic republics have refused to serve in the Soviet army, claiming that it is an occupation army using forced conscription in violation of the Geneva conventions. We were told that only 12.5 percent of eligible Lithuanians had reported to serve in the Soviet army this year.) The Soviet paratroopers were special forces from the Vitebsk Airborne Division, an elite unit under the command of the KGB that was used for special missions in Afghanistan and also to suppress demonstrations in Baku and Tbilisi. They are, we were told, under the command of General Valentin Varennikov, who is in charge of restoring order in “hot spots” throughout the Soviet Union.

On January 10, President Gorbachev sent a letter to the Lithuanian leaders threatening to impose direct presidential rule if they persisted in disobeying the constitution. On January 11, paratroopers attacked and took over the press building and the National Defense building, apparently hoping to silence the independent press and put out of action the local Lithuanian militia loyal to the government. In fact, the press continued to publish with the help of the republic’s largest newspaper, Respublika, which has its own building and printing plant; and the threatened government officials in the ministries and parliament continued to be defended, first by volunteer guards and then by large numbers of citizens who responded to radio calls for help.

Thousands of people went into the streets, forming a human shield around the parliament and other key buildings. “I came to protect my government,” a computer engineer whose leg was smashed by a tank told me when I visited him in the main hospital in Vilnius. “We had no guns but we were morally prepared to protect the parliament.” He had become infuriated, he said, by “lies” on Moscow television and radio claiming that “the people of Lithuania did not support their Supreme Soviet.” He, and thousands of others, went to the parliament to prove that Moscow was wrong.

Two more buildings were seized on January 12. A “National Salvation Committee,” which appears to have been hastily created by old-line Communists unwilling to give their names, and whose public spokesman was the Lithuanian Communist Party’s ideology chief Juozas Jarmalavicius,4 announced that it was taking over the government by popular demand. The identity of the leaders of the National Salvation Committee, according to the Shield report, “was carefully hidden in order to escape responsibility in case of failure.”5

In the early morning hours of January 13 a bloody showdown took place when the television tower and television center were attacked and occupied by Soviet paratroopers and tanks. With remarkable discipline, the Lithuanian crowds—estimates of their numbers range from 20,000 to 60,000—organized a vigorous non-violent defense of the television buildings during which at least fourteen people were killed and hundreds were injured. President Landsbergis telephoned President Gorbachev to ask him to call off the paratroopers, but Gorbachev refused to come to the phone. Nevertheless, the troops did not go on to attack the Parliament or other key buildings. Just how and by whom the decision not to proceed was made remains a mystery. But some of the reasons are apparent. A Lithuanian newsman provided one of them: “They did not expect that people without guns would stand under tanks.”

Another factor contributing to the failure of the coup was the visit to nearby Estonia on January 13 by Mr. Gorbachev’s nemesis, Boris Yeltsin. Mr. Yeltsin, who seems as popular in the Soviet Union as Mr. Gorbachev is in the West, made a public statement in Tallinn reaffirming his support for Baltic independence and condemning the army’s violence in Vilnius. “Violence against the people of the Baltics will cause a new crisis within Russia itself and among Russians living in other republics,” he said. Describing the meeting with Yeltsin, a member of the Estonian parliament told us that it “opened a new page in our history.” Yeltsin’s willingness to ally himself openly with the independent Baltic governments, and to denounce the troops, clearly had an effect on the government’s decision to halt the attacks.

The Baltic peoples have never willingly accepted Russian and Soviet rule and they view their countries as occupied nations. Lithuania, once a powerful medieval state, did not become a republic independent of Russia until November 1918, and, along with the other Baltic states, it was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 according to secret agreements signed at the time of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In 1941 the three states were occupied by the Nazi army and in 1944 they were reannexed by the Soviet Union. The human toll was enormous: some 35,000 Lithuanians were deported or killed during the first Soviet occupation in 1941, and 350,000 more were sent into the gulag system by the Soviets between 1944 and 1952. An estimated 83 percent of Lithuania’s 200,000 Jews were annihilated by the Nazis, sometimes with the assistance of Lithuanian collaborators.

If Gorbachev is now seen as the enemy of the Baltic independence movements, his policy of glasnost nevertheless made them possible. When the Gorbachev government in December 1989 finally acknowledged the existence of the secret agreements with the Nazis, the Baltic peoples saw their chance to dramatize the illegal basis of Soviet rule. Lithuania was in the strongest position; of the three Baltic republics, it has the largest percentage of indigenous people—80 percent of its 3.6 million population are Lithuanians, the remaining 20 percent being largely Poles and Russians. Lithuania’s open independence movement—the political organization Sajudis—was organized in June 1988 by a group of intellectuals, including Vytautas Landsbergis, who became its president in November 1988.

Sajudis quickly gained wide popular support. In September 1989, the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet, under enormous popular pressure from Sajudis, declared the 1940 Soviet annexation invalid, thus directly challenging Soviet rule. Three months later, in December, the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet was the first in a Soviet republic to abolish the Communist party’s monopoly of power. During the same month, the Communist party of Lithuania split into two factions, one loyal to Moscow, the other favoring independence. The pro-independence faction, headed by Algirdas Brazauskas, has since changed its name to the Democratic Labor party.

In February 1990, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to hold independent elections; the Moscow-affiliated Communist party and other Communists who did not join the Sajudis slate were defeated, and a new pro-independence parliament, in which Sajudis controlled two thirds of the seats, was elected. In March 1990, the Lithuanian parliament, with six abstentions, declared that Lithuania was independent and elected Landsbergis president. Just recently, on February 9, 1991, Lithuania held its first national referendum, which Gorbachev declared in advance was “without legal basis”; 90 percent of those voting want Lithuania to be independent.

Estonia, according to a 1989 census, is 61.5 percent Estonian, and Latvia is only 52 percent Latvian, and they are both understandably more cautious about independence than Lithuania. Lithuania demands that all negotiations with Moscow be on equal terms; it has asked for diplomatic recognition from abroad; it has refused to participate, except as an observer, in the USSR Federation Council; and it has refused to carry out policies adopted by the central government. Estonia and Latvia, on the other hand, envisage a period of transition before they achieve independence and they are more willing to negotiate with Moscow. Estonia wants to be sure its economy can work outside the Soviet system before it becomes completely politically independent. An Estonian saying goes something like this: “We Estonians develop the new ideas, the Lithuanians put them into action, and the Latvians complain, then follow the Lithuanians. After a while, the Estonians join them.”

The differences between the three Baltic republics fade, however, when one considers that in each there is now a popularly elected, pro-independence parliament known as the Supreme Council, in which Communists play at best a negligible role. In each of the republics, moreover, the Communist party has split into a pro-Moscow faction and a stronger pro-independence faction. Each has refused to participate in the all-Union referendum on the need to preserve the Soviet Union that Gorbachev had scheduled for March 17. Each has made the national language the official state language and is drafting new laws on citizenship requirements and the right to own property. Each seeks to quiet the fears of its ethnic minorities about the need to learn the national language and about discrimination in jobs, housing, and education.

The Sajudis organization arranged for us to meet with a group representing Poles, Russians, Georgians, Ukrainians, and Azerbaijanis. One after another, they assured us of their support for Lithuania’s independence. Minority support was demonstrated more spontaneously in January in the streets where members of all these groups joined forces with Lithuanians in opposing the Soviet army attacks.

Still, the Gorbachev government retains some support in the Baltics; this comes mainly from the hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops stationed in camps and naval bases throughout the region, from the many retired officers who live there, and from Russians who were brought to the Baltics specifically to work in the huge Soviet industrial enterprises, particularly armaments factories, that are run like closed cities. Other members of minority groups who came to the relatively prosperous Baltic republics seeking a better life appear to have little lingering love for the Soviet system and many would probably be happy to join with those seeking independence.

The Baltic republics have supported one another, and recently they have been collaborating more closely. When the Lithuanian radio and television were silenced on January 13, Latvian radio began broadcasting to Lithuania.6 In December 1990 a joint session of the three parliaments was held in Vilnius at which an interparliamentary work group was established to develop common positions.

At the parliament building in Vilnius we went to see President Vytautas Landsbergis, whom I had first met in 1989, when he came to our office in New York representing Sajudis. A former music teacher, he is a quietly confident man and he seems unchanged by all that he has experienced. His strength and popularity are based on his firm refusal to deal with Moscow on any basis other than that of parity between two independent countries.

Landsbergis is known for his stubbornness and his refusal to compromise, which has led to disagreements with more pragmatic members of his government, such as former Prime Minister Prunskiene. There are some, mainly Western, experts who believe that he and his Sajudis followers might have been more successful if they had proceeded at a slower pace in making demands on Gorbachev; relations between the two are very strained. The same stubbornness can be seen in Landsbergis’s refusal to leave the parliament building where he has been living night and day for some time now. If the building comes under siege he will, it seemed clear, remain there to the end. “It’s the Russian army that keeps Landsbergis popular,” one of his critics told us.

Landsbergis asked us to look into the situation of Lithuania’s minority groups, confident that any fair inquiry would discredit Soviet claims that their human rights are being violated. His other request, in fact his final words to us as we left, was: “Push Bush.”

The parliaments of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have all been barricaded against possible attackers with cement-block walls and rows of huge boulders blocking their entrances. In Estonia, where there has been little violence so far, the inner courtyard of the parliament, a former castle, is nevertheless equipped with television trucks and food and water supplies. Soldiers with Kalashnikovs are stationed there night and day. A member of the parliament told me: “We can’t control everything—the radio station, the television, or the banks, but the castle we must control to the end.” A whimsical traffic sign shows a black tank against a white background with a red slash running through it.

The Lithuanian parliament has a rough-and-ready atmosphere that reminded me of Poland during the Solidarity struggle. Young men—voluntary civilian guards—camp out in sleeping bags in the corridors; in the evenings performers come to provide entertainment for the “troops.” Walls are plastered with posters, photographs, and press releases. The parliament building remains brightly lit throughout the night; outside the building there are displays of flowers and flags for the dead and bonfires to warm those on guard.

The staff at the parliament’s press center showed us unedited videotaped film taken by people in the crowd during the Soviet army attacks of January 11 and 13. With terrifying realism it verified the accounts that we later heard from victims in the hospital. The unarmed people facing down the Soviet tanks at the press building on January 11 linked arms and sang the national anthem, shouting at the impassive soldiers, and when the tanks advanced, dispersing them in confusion, they nevertheless continued to chant “Leituva” (Lithuania), and sometimes “Shame” or “Freedom.”

Film taken at the television tower during the early morning hours of January 13 showed a series of nightmarish impressions and scenes: darkness, smoke, eerie lights, explosions, the staccato bursts of automatic weapons, the deafening roar of tanks shooting blanks, people of all ages running for safety, soldiers smashing their rifle butts into people’s heads, shots, screams, bloody faces, corpses.

A man who was wounded near the television tower told us:

Between us and the tanks we saw soldiers. I can’t say how many tanks and APCs [armored personnel carriers] I saw. We stood, we shouted “Lithuania,” “Freedom,” “No to Fascism.” Then there were shots, the windows broke and glass fell down on us. We moved away from the tower because of the falling glass. Then I turned and saw a tank pushing the crowd, moving slowly. I saw people at the corners of the tank, pushing to stop it, but it didn’t stop…. When I felt the tank on my leg, I saw three others beside me, we were in pain, shouting.

The video showed the dead and wounded as they arrived in the hospital. It lingered over the body of a young woman with tank treads etched in bloody swaths across her flattened abdomen. The camera panned to her face, strangely peaceful and unmarked; she was still able to speak. This was twenty-four-year-old Loreta Asanaviciute, whose pelvis was crushed by a tank on January 13 and who died some hours later in the Vilnius Red Cross Hospital. Photographs of her legs, crushed under a tank, have come to symbolize Lithuania’s “Bloody Sunday.”

Lithuania has two public prosecutor’s offices (known as procuracies)—one established by Moscow, in March 1990, to counteract the work of the other, which remains loyal to the republic. The pro-Moscow prosecutors work in a building secured and guarded by the army. They investigate cases of interest to “the Center”; it was this office, for example, that detained three members of the Shield commission on February 12 and accused them of possessing gold, drugs, and weapons. The republic procuracy, on the other hand, continues to conduct the day-to-day work of criminal prosecutions and is also actively involved in investigating the January violence. We met with the republic’s chief prosecutor, Arturas Paulauskas, and with one of some fifteen investigators who have already taken testimony from more than two hundred eyewitnesses. Their findings show that the crowd was peaceful and unarmed, that the paratroopers shot directly at people, and that many people were injured by tanks, including three who were crushed to death.

In the face of all this evidence, Moscow still insists that the photographs were staged, that the crowd was armed, and that it began the shooting. On January 16 a Moscow television report by Aleksandr Nevzorov defended the Soviet troops for protecting the “several-hundred-thousand-strong Russian population, who no longer have a voice or the right to speak or to defend themselves in Lithuania.” Nevzorov claimed that the paratroopers are now being castigated because “a man threw himself under a moving tank from a distance of three meters, when it was no longer possible to stop the tank.” He said that troops loyal to Moscow were in danger and had to be liberated by tanks and paratroopers: “There is no way out for those who dare to speak Russian on this soil.”

The chief prosecutor’s office in Moscow sent eight officials to Vilnius to oversee the investigation, but the Lithuanian prosecutor said he was “categorically opposed” to working under Moscow’s supervision: “We are the procuracy of an independent state,” he told us, “and can only work on the principle of parity.” “Yet we need their help,” he added. “The military do not recognize us, they ignore our invitations [to testify], and we can’t identify weapons without their help.” And the Moscow group, the prosecutor said, also needed his help: “The people do not trust Moscow. They don’t give them evidence.” Mr. Paulauskas and his investigators fear that Moscow will try to prove that Lithuanians began the shooting. They hope to get expert assistance to carry out an investigation that would include international observers.7

Lithuania; Latvia, and Estonia appear to be closer in spirit to Eastern Europe than they are to the Soviet Union. The people there seem more familiar with the concept of democracy. They have clung to their national languages and cultures and have a clear historical memory of their own independent existence fifty years ago. In 1989, when Communist regimes began collapsing in Eastern Europe, people in Poland and Germany predicted that the Baltic republics would be the last to carry out revolutions. But, according to some of his closest former associates, Gorbachev has seen the Baltic republics as the first in an entirely new series of threats to the cohesion of the USSR which might not end until Communist governments have fallen in each of the Soviet republics. By obstructing the drive for independence in the Baltics, Gorbachev only strengthened it elsewhere, allowing Lithuania and the other Baltic republics to serve as models for resistance by other republics.

Before now there was no precedent in world history for a powerful empire collapsing in just a year or two,” observed Ints Calitis, a Latvian nationalist who spent seventeen and a half years in prison for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” and is now a member of the Latvian parliament. “I understand your country’s deep concern,” he continued. “Helping the Soviet Union is part of the West’s self-defense.”

But how concerned is the United States? While the Bush administration has concentrated on destroying Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Soviet Union has been careening along an unmarked path that could very well lead to a civil war, in which some of its huge stockpiles of nuclear and conventional weapons might come into the hands of local demagogues. Gorbachev’s use of armed force to subdue unrest could exacerbate that conflict.

If, on the other hand, the Soviet military establishment were to succeed in subduing the movements in the republics, and even in its goal of restoring the Soviet Union’s status as a world power, several developments that had until recently been thought obsolete may once again seem possible. One is a new alliance with Iraq, the Soviet Union’s ally for more than twenty years and with which, as Gorbachev has recently shown, the USSR continues to have friendly relations. Another would be a renewed arms race: the negotiations over a strategic arms treaty have recently run into difficulties over both the verification and classification of weapons to be reduced. A third development might be an attempt to reestablish influence, if not hegemony, in parts of Eastern Europe where Soviet troops still remain; there are 50,000 in Poland right now, for example, and the Soviets have said that they refuse to leave before 1994. With the US government preoccupied by the Middle East, the shaky new East European democracies worry about becoming dependent on the Soviet Union again. They fear the disintegrating empire at their borders and suspect that Mr. Gorbachev’s “common European home” has a time bomb ticking away at its hastily built foundations.

The United States would hardly have been able to challenge Iraq if the cold war had not ended. Its present ability to wage war in the Middle East was made possible by the US-Soviet détente. But this détente is based on Soviet weakness, on Mr. Gorbachev’s decision to withdraw from foreign adventures in order to deal with his problems at home. Our understanding with Gorbachev is no more stable than the Soviet Union itself.

The West’s belief in Gorbachev created a false sense of security. He was rightly praised for his intelligence, his sophistication, and his humor, and for his efforts to awaken a torpid Soviet society. Many in the West saw him as a Western-style politician, a liberal, a democratic pragmatist, and neglected to see that he is still deeply committed to Leninist precepts and trying to control the storm he unwittingly released with glasnost. Gorbachev cannot bring himself to abandon what he sees as the basics of “socialism.” He refused at the last moment to endorse Shatalin’s 500-day economic plan for a transition to a free market economy. He also refused to propose a plausible nationalities policy at a time when it was still possible to meet the new demands of the republics. His concessions seem grudging and uncomprehending, and they come too late.

The present stalemate in Lithuania reflects his characteristic vacillation. “This is a pause,” President Landsbergis told us. “There is no guarantee that they are backing off.” Although the Kremlin has assured the Lithuanian government that it is removing special paratroop forces from its soil, a vast number of regular troops remain stationed there and they can be seen patrolling the streets. Special commissions are being sent by Moscow to carry on talks with leaders in each of the Baltic republics, while the Soviet army continues to guard dozens of the most important buildings in the region. The National Salvation Front in Lithuania recently announced that it is suspending its activities. On February 12 in Latvia, another mysterious explosion shattered windows in the Communist party headquarters and injured a guard; according to Respublika, news of the blast was broadcast by Mr. Nevzorov on Leningrad television about one hour before it occurred.

Why did Gorbachev make his stand in Lithuania, rather than in one of the many other restless republics that are challenging his rule? “They wanted to sink the flagship,” we were told. He may also have chosen Lithuania because it is small, and because its leaders and people are committed to nonviolent protest. Elsewhere in the Soviet Union—in Azerbaijan, in Armenia, in Georgia—republic governments and opposition groups have armed themselves with weapons, in some cases even heavy weapons such as artillery; a coup attempt by the Kremlin in one of these places might very well unleash the serious guerrilla warfare that everyone fears. In choosing Lithuania for a showdown, however, Mr. Gorbachev ignored an important lesson from recent history about what Václav Havel called “the power of the powerless.” In Lithuania, people are already speaking of the “singing revolution.”

February 28, 1991

  1. 1

    I visited the Baltic republics from January 27 to February 2, together with Jonathan Fanton, president of the New School for Social Research and Vice Chairman of Helsinki Watch.

  2. 2

    See the January 25, 1991, Helsinki Watch report. Pattern of Violence, which describes the army’s use of lethal force in Kazakhstan in December 1986, in Georgia in April 1989, in Uzbekistan in June 1989, in Azerbaijan in January 1990, and in Tadzhikistan in February 1990.

  3. 3

    See Peter Reddaway, “Empire on the Brink,” and Yuri Afanasyev, “The Coming Dictatorship,” The New York Review, January 31, 1991.

  4. 4

    We asked to meet with Mr. Jarmalavicius while we were in Vilnius but our requests were refused.

  5. 5

    The notion of creating national salvation committees throughout the country in order to displace independently elected officials was first proposed publicly in November by Ivan K. Polozkov, the Russian republic Communist party leader.

  6. 6

    Lithuania still maintains its independent television station in the city of Kaunas, and it also receives from outside Lithuania television broadcasts from a powerful satellite hookup in the parliament building.

  7. 7

    In Latvia there are also two public prosecutor’s offices (procuracies), divided along lines similar to those in Lithuania. There we met with a prosecutor in charge of investigating the January 20 attack on the Interior Ministry. Ten days after the event, her office had already taken detailed testimony from more than 250 people. From this evidence she suspected the courtyard of the pro-Moscow public prosecutor’s building may have been used to launch the January 20 attack. We also met with a prosecutor sent from Moscow to supervise the investigation who told us that he intended to work with both prosecutors’ offices in ascertaining the facts. When we raised the question of the pro-Moscow office’s complicity, he showed no concern about a possible conflict of interest.