Another shake-up among Baltic Communist Party leaders has shed further light on how Moscow is trying to handle nationalist agitation in the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Rather than cracking down, Moscow seems to be moving with the tide of events. But by appointing - or, in the case of Estonia, actively supporting - reform-minded leaders in the republics, Soviet leaders seem to be trying to regain lost momentum, strengthen the local party structures, and keep agitation within politically acceptable limits.
The latest shake-up came yesterday, when the Lithuanian Communist Party's first secretary, Ringaudas-Bronislovas Songaila, party chief for just under a year, was replaced by another senior party official, Algirdas Brazauskas.
Mr. Brazauskas is strongly supported by the Movement for the Support of Perestroika (restructuring), the mass organization that has dominated the political scene in Lithuania for the past three months.
The Movement, as it is usually known, is due to open its founding congress in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius tomorrow.
Like its Estonian and Latvian counterparts, it is demanding a broad degree of economic autonomy, and linguistic and political reform. It is strongly opposed to the construction of the Ignalina nuclear power plant in the republic. Movement activists say that Brazauskas also has considerable doubts about the safety of the plant.
The Movement had called for Mr. Songaila's dismissal three weeks ago, after the violent dispersal of a demonstration in Vilnius.
At that time, one of the Movement's main leaders, Arvydas Juozaitas, told this correspondent that Songaila's position had become ``very shaky.'' Mr. Juozaitas also said that the Movement hoped to see Brazauskas appointed party chief soon.
One prominent activist, contacted by phone yesterday, said that he expected the retirement of another unpopular Lithuanian party leader early next year. Nikolai Mitkin, the ethnic Russian who is the second-ranking member of the party hierarchy in the republic, would probably retire in March 1989, the activist said.
The Lithuanian changes seem to have been carefully stage-managed. Reports of Songaila's dismissal were circulating in Moscow and Vilnius well before the start of the plenary meeting of the Lithuanian party that was supposed to discuss the leadership shuffle. And the changes in Lithuania were once again timed for the eve of the founding congress of the new movement.
This has now become a pattern.
A little over a week ago, a shakeup at the top of the leadership in Latvia heralded the foundation of the Latvian Popular Front.
Leadership changes were not needed in Estonia, where the Communist Party has already established itself as a strong support of reform. Instead, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signaled his support for changes there by meeting Estonian Communist Party first secretary Vaino Valyas to discuss reforms two days before the Estonian Popular Front came into being.
Officials from Moscow first signaled their displeasure with Songaila in August, when a senior Central Committee staffer met with Movement leaders. The official, Anatoly Tsvetkov - who Movement organizers say is an aide to ruling Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev - commented sarcastically that, prior to the meeting, Moscow had only received ``panic-stricken'' reports about events in Lithuania.
Soon afterward Mr. Yakovlev himself visited Vilnius, and met with senior Movement organizers. Both Mr. Tsvetkov and Yakovlev impressed the activists as being open to their new organization.
With the completion of the Movement's congress on Sunday, all three Baltic states will have legally constituted mass organizations.
Lithuanian activists are keen to see closely coordinated actions between the three organizations. Large numbers of members of all three movements view themselves as embryonic political parties. All three republics are united by a common history - their annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940. And all three movements are animated by the desire to loosen the bonds that tie them to Moscow as much as possible.
Reformers like Yakovlev and Mr. Gorbachev seem to understand the desire to loosen the ties. But reformers in Moscow also apparently feel that any effort to break the bonds would be disastrous, both for the three republics and the Soviet reform effort.