FORCED to choose between losing power and the wrath of Moscow, the Lithuanian Communist Party has chosen the lesser evil: It is risking confrontation with the Soviet party leadership by pushing ahead with plans to establish an independent Communist Party. The decision will anger both radicals and conservatives in Moscow.
At a special Central Committee meeting on nationality policy last week Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev flatly declared that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) must not be allowed to fragment.
Conservative party leaders like Yegor Ligachev will be even more offended. At the same meeting Mr. Ligachev forcefully defended the CPSU's right to be the leading force in the Soviet political system, and ruled out the idea of a multiparty system.
Lithuanian communists say the concept of the party's leading role is dead, and add that their republic already has a multiparty system. But underlying the push for the party's independence is an even more striking assumption: the belief of Lithuanian party officials that their republic is moving steadily toward total independence.
Half a year ago such a statement would have seemed heretical. Now officials talk of it in an almost matter-of-fact way.
``I'm personally convinced that our progress toward independence cannot be stopped. It's a natural process,'' says Justas Paletskis, head of the Ideology Department of the Lithuanian Central Committee.
``It can be temporarily blocked by a coup in Moscow, or the declaration of a state of emergency [by Moscow] here. Or, of course, by a global catastrophe like a world war,'' he adds.
Mindaugas Barysas, editor of the Central Committee's newspaper, Tiesa, took the same approach. Total independence is probably decades away, he said. ``It would be nice it is was sooner, but we have to establish the economic conditions for political independence.''
Plans to declare the party independent will be discussed at an extraordinary congress of the Lithuanian party, to be held within the next three months.
Several officials said they expect the congress to recommend dropping the clause in the Lithuanian Constitution assigning the party the leading and guiding role in political life.
Future relations with Moscow will probably be determined by a treaty or agreement, officials say.
Some, however, predict that the Soviet Communist Party will, in the foreseeable future, turn into a Yugoslav-style league of communist parties where an umbrella body will coordinate the work of separate parties from each of the Soviet Union's constituent republics.
A new draft program for the Lithuanian party was published on Sept. 22 in the local news media. It is pointedly vague in its definition of independence - for tactical reasons, most party officials here said.
But well-placed sources in Vilnius say that this vagueness did not prevent officials in Moscow from criticizing the Lithuanian party chief, Algirdas Brazauskas, when he visited the capital earlier this week.
Party officials declare their support for Mr. Gorbachev and other leading reformers like Alexander Yakovlev. But they express no regrets about diverging from the Gorbachev-Yakovlev line.
``We fully understand that our actions are causing problems for Gorbachev and his team at a difficult time, but for us there is simply no other way,'' said Mr. Paletskis.
The main stimulus for an independent party was the resounding defeat suffered by the party in the March 26 elections for a nationwide parliament, and the fear that this would be repeated in republican elections early next year. In the March elections the party was humiliated by the independent political organization Sajudis, which had been founded less than a year before. Sajudis, the Lithuanian counterpart of the Estonian and Latvian popular fronts, continues to be the predominant political force in the republic. Party officials say that, without a revitalized and independent Communist Party, they are doomed to defeat. Even with one, some add, their chances are slender.
The March elections were preceded by a short-lived but politically significant defeat for liberal communist leaders inside the Lithuanian party.
The reformist first secretary, Mr. Brazauskas, came under intense pressure from Moscow - notably a commission of the ruling Politburo headed by Ideology Chief Vadim Medvedev.
Lithuanian party conservatives simultaneously stepped up their pressure. The reformist ideology secretary, Lionginas Sepetys, was forced to resign, and party leaders began to talk of the danger of a political crackdown in the republic.
Lithuanian officials now feel that the conservative backlash contributed to their electoral disaster. It may also explain why they are now less attentive to Moscow's dictates.
Soon after the March elections the Lithuanian Komsomol, the party's youth wing, made history by announcing its independence from the nationwide Komsomol, or Communist Youth League.
The separation was acrimonious, and Lithuanian Komsomol Chief Alfonsas Matsaitis says pressure from Moscow is still intense. The new organization receives no financial aid from Moscow, and no longer remits membership dues or the profits from its Komsomol newspaper - 1.5 million rubles (about $2.3 million at official rates) - to the central Komosomol organization.
Komsomol membership was virtually compulsory for anyone wishing to go onto higher education, or do military service in one of the less-demanding arms of the military, Mr. Matsaitis noted in an interview this week. In such cases a positive Komsomol reference was a vital.
Since declaring independence, the Lithuanian Komsomol has dropped the reference system, and has announced that anyone who wishes to leave the organization can do so without prejudice.
As a result Matsaitis expects membership this year to drop from 420,000 to half that. The new Komsomol has also called for Lithuanians to be allowed to do their military service within the Baltic republics, and proposes a system of alternative service for conscientious objectors.