By Sally Low
Three out of four Lithuanian voters on February 9-10 answered "Yes" to a referendum asking "Do you support the idea that Lithuania is an independent, democratic republic?"
The vote for independence can only have been increased by the Soviet military's killing of 13 people on January 13 and the forced occupation of key buildings in the capital Vilnius and other cities.
The voters were evidently unswayed by further intimidatory moves: imminent Soviet military manoeuvres in the three Baltic states, leaflets — dropped by military helicopters on the city of Kaunas — predicting that secession would lead to the "destruction of Lithuania" and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's statement that the poll was "legally invalid".
As well, alarmist propaganda about discrimination against ethnic Russians and provocations such as mysterious bomb blasts in the capital cities of the three republics combined with unrest due to food price rises to create a climate of crisis which might serve as pretext for further actions against the pro-independence governments.
Certainly there has been discrimination against Russian and other ethnic minorities by the Popular Front-dominated Baltic governments. Minority language rights have been denied, immigration has been restricted and even calls for expatriation have been heard in various forums.
The resulting tensions have been deliberately whipped up by conservative forces involved in the so called Internationalist Fronts and the sections of the republican Communist Parties that have maintained their opposition to independence.
Nevertheless, even among the ethnic Russian population in Lithuania there appears to be considerable support for independence. Although citing no figures, ELTA, the Lithuanian newsagency, reported that many Russian-speaking people voted yes on February 9-10.
An opinion poll conducted by Vilnius University in late January put support for independence at 75% among the indigenous Russian population. This seems extraordinarily high, given that their own polls showed 28% six months earlier but, even if exaggerated, the figures indicate a significant swing.
End of glasnost?
This may reflect fears that a crackdown on pro-independence forces
would be only the first step in a campaign to dismantle all the freedoms won by Soviet citizens in the last six years. Gorbachev's failure to condemn the killings or take action against those responsible — even while he denied prior knowledge of the attacks — has fuelled speculation that he has allied himself with, or lost real power to, hardline Stalinists in the military and state apparatus.
Opposition to the government's actions among citizens of other Soviet republics has been strong. In Moscow on January 20, a crowd estimated variously at 100,00 to 300,000 marched on the Kremlin. There have also been strikes in Georgia and a two-hour symbolic stoppage in some Russian cities.
According to Moscow News, in opinion polls conducted in Moscow and Leningrad, 74% of those questioned condemned the troops' actions in Lithuania.
Appealing to Russian soldiers serving in the Baltic states not to take part in any actions against civilians, Russian Federation leader Boris Yeltsin referred to "dark reactionary forces" behind the military threat.
Whatever Gorbachev's position in relation to the conservative forces within the CPSU and the army, the actions taken or allowed by his government represent an attack on perestroika and glasnost. They are guaranteed to make solutions to the complex questions of national and ethnic rights much harder to find.
The clumsy brutality has played into the hands of the most intransigent secessionist and pro-Western forces in the Baltics.
Towards the end of 1990 in Lithuania in particular, there was evidence that they were losing support to more moderate forces.
Vitas Petkiavicius, a Lithuanian writer and founding member of Sajudis, the Lithuanian Popular Front, told the December 6 issue of Soviet Weekly, "we fought against bureaucracy, the awful red bureaucracy. They scolded the old Supreme Soviet for having as many as 154 people working there. Now the figure is twice as high.
"Landsbergis has given himself a monthly salary of 2000 roubles, and he awards his supporters with flats and foreign trips. They even share the hunting grounds. Nothing changes ..."
Fred Wier, Moscow correspondent of the US Guardian, reports polls last year showing that many Lithuanians would have preferred independent Communist Party member Algirdas Brazauskas to Landsbergis.
Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene, more willing to negotiate with
Moscow than Landsbergis, resigned when the government, in response to demonstrations against proposed food price rises, voted against them.
A democratic approach and a willingness to make concessions on the part of Moscow would surely have strengthened the hands of the moderates. Now, however, Landsbergis is the heroic leader of Lithuania, and no doubt the divisions within Estonian politics have been alleviated by the common fear of seeing Soviet tanks roll through the streets of Tallinn at any time.
Another spin-off from the army's moves on the Baltics has been considerable political mileage for Boris Yeltsin. His scheme for an alternative union between the Russian Federation, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Byelorussia has received wide publicity. Latvian Popular Front leader Janis Dinevia has said that one of the Front's priorities is "to move quickly to work with the Russian republic and Boris Yeltsin".
While participating in the March 17 referendum on the Union Treaty, the Russian government also plans to ask its constituency if the federation should remain a single republic. In what can only be seen as a challenge to Gorbachev, it will also seek approval for the creation of the position of president of the Russian Federation — a title that Yeltsin would be tipped to win.
Lithuania's poll and that planned by Estonia for March 3 signify those republics' intentions to boycott the referendum. Along with the Latvian government, they do not want to give official recognition to their incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1940.
Approved at last December's sitting of the Congress of People's Deputies, the Union Treaty has already been repudiated by six republican governments, including the three Baltic states.
Under it, republics would be granted control over natural resources, language, industry, culture, education and local affairs. The central government would manage defence, foreign policy, energy, communications, transport, taxation, customs, finance and credit and all gold and diamond reserves.
If it had been proposed in 1989, when the independence movements first became a major force in all of the 15 Soviet republics, the treaty might well have had a chance of success. But now, particularly after the events of January, it is unlikely to satisfy many.
At a press conference in Moscow on January 22, Gorbachev angrily denied that perestroika has been abandoned. "We recognise the right of republics to withdraw from the union, but not in a
spontaneous, emotional way. This question must be decided by referendum", he said.
But whose referendum? And under what conditions? A political solution to the crisis created by military intervention requires withdrawal of troops from the Baltic states and an unequivocal acceptance of their rights to secede irrespective of how the majority of Soviet citizens in other republics vote on March 17.
Only then would the Soviet government be in a position to negotiate rights for ethnic minorities and other matters such as those relating to trade and access to the Baltic Sea.