Soviets Soften Stance on Use of Force in Baltic Republics

TROOP movements and military overflights have ended in Lithuania, calming fears that Moscow might order outright military intervention to block Lithuanian independence. But analysts here and in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, say they don't think Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had seriously planned a full military crackdown on the rebellious Baltic republic - at least for now. Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze underscored this Tuesday in Namibia, when he told reporters, "We are against the use of force in any region and particularly against using force domestically."

Mr. Shevardnadze's statement apparently flies in the face of recent examples of Soviet military use - January's troop invasion into Baku, aimed at reasserting Soviet control there, and the April 1989 use of Army troops and poison gas to break up a demonstration in Tbilisi, Georgia.

But the question of the future of the Baltic republics seems to be a fundamentally different situation. A Soviet parliament commission has already declared illegal the secret 1939 protocol that allowed the Soviet Union to annex the three small nations. Western nations do not formally recognize the Baltics' inclusion in the Soviet Union.

If the Kremlin were to use force to prevent Baltic independence, it would likely spell the end of Mr. Gorbachev's five-year program of economic and political restructuring. But analysts say the Kremlin's approach has been more to use all the available levers - flexing military muscle while maintaining at least low-level contacts with Lithuanian representatives in Moscow.

"Gorbachev wanted to show the Lithuanians who's really in control," says a Western diplomatic observer. "He has done that convincingly, and now he can negotiate with them at his own pace. It's clear that both sides would rather talk than fight."

On Monday, as a three-day Kremlin deadline requiring Lithuania to rescind its March 11 declaration of independence expired, Gorbachev met for 30 minutes with Lithuanian members of the Soviet parliament. The Lithuanians, who say they now attend sessions as nonvoting observers, presented Gorbachev with a statement from Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis rejecting the Soviet parliament's declaration last week that Lithuania had acted illegally.

On Monday, Gorbachev authorized "priority measures" to enforce his stand, later defined as including an increase in guards at the republic's nuclear power plants and other "vital installations of federal property." On Tuesday, Mr. Landsbergis reported that extra guards had appeared outside the Ignalina nuclear power plant. The Lithuanians voted in parliament to set up border posts and customs checkpoints.

Gorbachev's carrot-and-stick approach seems calculated to set a precedent for his handling of other independence-minded republics - Lithuania's Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Latvia, and Georgia to the south.

Earlier this week, the top Communist leaders of Estonia and Latvia came to Moscow for talks with Gorbachev. A report by the Soviet news agency Tass Tuesday described Gorbachev's meeting with Latvian President Anatoly Gorbunovs, party leader Jan Vagris, and Prime Minister Vilnis-Edvins Bresis as aimed at discussing "the development of the Soviet federation and the principles of a future union treaty."

On Monday, Gorbachev spent four hours talking to Estonia's Communist leaders. The main items of discussion were the future of the republic's Communist Party, which has lost its cohesion, and republican sovereignty.

On Sunday, elections in Latvia and Estonia for the republics' parliaments gave decisive victories to the independence-minded popular fronts. In Latvia, Tass said the Popular Front won 109 of the 170 seats decided in the first round of voting. Runoff elections will be held for the remaining 31 seats. In Estonia, Popular Front candidates were also expected to win a majority of seats, initial results indicate.

Gorbachev must also revise his political calculations for the three Slavic republics - Russia, the Ukraine, and Byelorussia - where pro-reform radicals scored major victories in runoff elections Sunday for local councils and republican parliaments. The city councils of Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev will all be controlled by candidates who ran on radical reform platforms.

In addition, a majority of the republican parliamentary deputies elected in those cities are from the radical camp.

In Minsk, the capital of Byelorussia, both the mayor and the city's party chief were defeated in the election. And in the Arctic Pechora mining region, Mikhail Shchadov, the minister of the Soviet coal industry, was defeated for the Russian parliament by Viktor Yakovlev, a shift foreman from Vorkuta.

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