MOSCOW — LITHUANIA'S renegade Communist Party leaders have emerged from a two-day grilling in Moscow with a victory of sorts. True, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has repeatedly denounced last week's decision by the Lithuanian Communist Party to ``declare independence'' from central control, saying that the Lithuanians are jeopardizing perestroika (restructuring).
And on Monday and Tuesday, a plenum of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee, called to address the crisis in the party, approved Mr. Gorbachev's report condemning the Lithuanian move as ``illegitimate.'' No group, in this case the congress of the Lithuanian Communist Party, has the right to tell any individual what party he or she will belong to, Kremlin ideology chief Vadim Medvedev told reporters.
But the way has been paved for compromise. In an unusual move that reflected the profound differences within the central Communist Party over the Lithuanian party's unprecedented step - and a tacit acknowledgment that ultimately Moscow has no recourse short of military force, which it says it won't use - the plenum did not make any final decisions.
Instead, it moved to buy time and press into service its best asset, Gorbachev's skill as a communicator. Soon after the New Year, the Soviet president and other Politburo members will travel to Lithuania to try to ``assess the situation.'' After the visit, the plenum will reconvene and draw final conclusions.
``Practically speaking, this means they will wait and let the 28th party congress [slated for next October] take up the matter,'' says Igor Sedykh, a columnist for the Novosti Press Agency. ``The soil is being prepared for a compromise. This is a very big step.''
Lithuanian party chief Algirdas Brazauskas has himself talked of compromise. What is needed, he says, is a restructuring of the Soviet Communist Party to allow greater independence for all the republics' local parties. In that context, he can foresee a mutually beneficial relationship between the central party and the Lithuanian party.
For the Communists of Lithuania, whose congress last week voted for independence of the party by a margin of 4 to 1, the opportunity to talk to Gorbachev on their own turf was welcome news. Gorbachev last visited Lithuania in 1980, before his rise to party leadership. The Lithuanians are eager to show him that the party has been rejuvenated by Mr. Brazauskas, and that the party rank and file are not ``extremist separatists'' who will bring blood and death, as Gorbachev warned in a fiery speech Sunday to the Soviet legislature.
According to Vilius Kavaliauskas, a columnist for the Lithuanian Communist paper Tiesa, this week's plenum has given ``a big boost'' to the Lithuanian party. Lithuanians have rallied to defend their charismatic leader, directing thousands of telegrams to Moscow in Brazauskas's defense. And in local elections scheduled for Feb. 4, Mr. Kavaliauskas says, ``I think the plenum has given us a boost of 15 to 20 percent.'' He also reports a flood of applications for membership in the new independent party, including many from young people.
The February elections lie at the heart of the Lithuanian Communists' move to break away from Moscow. By all indications, they were heading for an embarrassing defeat such as they experienced in elections last March for the Soviet parliament. Since then, the line has been blurred between the Lithuanian Communist Party and the local popular front movement, called Sajudis. The party has essentially adopted Sajudis's program; several key activists belong to both organizations.
In the clash between Moscow and Lithuania, much will hinge on how Gorbachev handles his visit. He has many supporters in Lithuania; the people, after all, owe their rise in national expression to his reforms. But if Gorbachev is perceived to be scolding them or telling them what to do, they will only be more determined.
At root, Gorbachev fears the Lithuanians are paving the way for other republics to follow suit and to secede from the Soviet Union (a right that is technically guaranteed any republic under the Soviet Constitution). Though the Lithuanian Communist Party program does set independent statehood as its goal, party activists acknowledge that could be several decades away.