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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.

  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.

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