BREAD and good faith are in short supply in Moscow these days, and the only thing cheap is talk. After several weeks of consultations, talks between Lithuania and the Kremlin show no signs of movement. The impasse arises from each side's fundamental concept of one another. Lithuania sees itself as a separate state trying to make compromise with a dangerous neighbor. The Kremlin sees Lithuania not as a neighbor, but as a useful possession, and is trying to hang on. Whereas Lithuanian negotiators speak to issues, Moscow speaks of control.
``It is not a matter of the Lithuanian negotiators' unwillingness to compromise on our independence,'' explained Algirdas Saudargas, Lithuanian foreign minister, ``We can not, by law, bargain that away. Every other issue is open for debate and adjustment. We have come to solve problems caused by 50 years of occupation. The Soviets have come to force us back into the Soviet Union.''
In fact, the Soviet opinion is far stronger than the Lithuanian foreign minister suggests. The Kremlin refuses to accept that Lithuania ever left the USSR. Whether they are successful or not in battering them into signing the new federation agreement is secondary. Gorbachev's spokesman, Prime Minister Nicolai Ryzhkov, chairman of the Kremlin delegation, expressed the Soviet stand with rancor following the last general meeting (10/21): Lithuania is a Soviet Republic, must obey the Soviet constitution, send its boys to the Soviet Army and contribute to the Soviet economy.
According to Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis, the talks are a test for the Kremlin. ``They look at us as war spoil. We will now see if the Soviets are genuine in their rejection of World War II expansionism, or if they are trying to fool the world again,'' he said.
And testing they are. Despite a commitment not to interfere in Lithuania's economy during the negotiations, Mr. Ryzhkov decreed last week (10/26) that all union enterprises in Lithuania belong to the USSR. The Soviets plan to reorganize ownership of the industries - which comprise the majority of Lithuania's manufacturing base - and sell half the shares to the workers and keep the other half for Moscow. The Lithuanian parliament rejected the decree.
Moscow has insisted that the preliminary talks constitute formal negotiations. This would trigger a moratorium on some Lithuanian laws passed after its independence declaration last March. The Lithuanians have dismissed Moscow's assertion.
Recently the Soviets demanded that the Communist Party and Polish nationals living in Lithuania have observer status during the negotiations. Although the Kremlin aim was to stall the talks, their suggestion of outside intervention might have unwittingly shown how to break the stalemate.
The UN or the Helsinki International Committee could become involved in the negotiations to ensure that they proceed under international law, not Soviet whim. US insistence on such a bargaining model would be consistent with its non-recognition of the Baltic annexation by the Soviets and would fit tidily into Washington's predicted harder line on Lithuanian independence.
In this kind of international forum, the Lithuanian question would appear in its historical perspective as an unresolved consequence of World War II as opposed to an internal Soviet affair. The logical extension of German unification is the restoration of Baltic independence.
It would also lessen Gorbachev's personal liability for Lithuania and allow him to sneak away smiling with washed hands and a clean Nobel Peace Prize.
Unless the West presses for this kind of outside mediation, slow economic strangulation, a second blockade, or military action by the Soviets in Lithuania is inevitable. Patience invites disaster.
Paul Goble, a US State Department adviser on Baltic affairs, forecasts that the US will follow the lead of Eastern Europe in recognizing Lithuania. Mr. Goble's intentions are noble but his sequence is backwards. It is Eastern Europe who is waiting for the lead of the US.
If much of the world is afflicted with Gorbymania, Eastern Europe has an unmentioned case of Gorbyphobia. Gorbachev's army still occupies their nations. They will not confront him and risk a delay in the Red Army's retreat.
While the world's darling was out scrounging billions in aid last week, the US denied Lithuania's $10 million to buy medical supplies which somehow never arrived from Moscow. If the US cannot reach into its pocket to help Lithuania, a glance into its conscience is now appropriate.
The upcoming Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Paris gives an opportunity for a Western full court press on the Soviets to deal squarely with Lithuania. Anything less will schedule a repeat performance of last spring this winter.