THERE was no bust of Lenin in the hall. The hammers and sickles were gone. And the lapel pins sported by both delegates proclaimed in advance what everyone gathered here for the conference of the Lithuanian Conmmunist Party (LCP) knew was inevitable: ``Independent LCP.'' The first chunk of the monolithic Soviet Communist Party has fallen away, with Wednesday's vote by 82 percent of the 1,038 LCP delegates to sever formal ties with the central party. The Communist parties of the other two Baltic republics, Estonia and Latvia, are expected to follow Lithuania's example.
Moscow has seen Lithuania's moves coming for more than a year. One by one, the Lithuanian branches of all-union organizations - such as those for youth, writers, and composers - have broken away. Earlier this month, Lithuania changed its Constitution to allow a multiparty system.
Top Kremlin leaders from Mr. Gorbachev on down have tried in vain to persuade the Lithuanian Communist leadership to reconsider its declaration of independence.
Last month, in an unprecedented move, the entire LCP leadership was summoned to Moscow for an eight-and-a-half-hour meeting with the ruling Politburo. Later, on a mission to Vilnius, Kremlin ideology chief Vadim Medvedev blasted LCP chief Algirdas Brazauskas for allowing ``nationalism and social democratic tendencies.''
The Kremlin's efforts have only played into the hands of Mr. Brazauskas and boosted his popularity. Political observers from across the spectrum here agree Brazauskas has achieved his goal. The breakaway may well save the LCP from complete humiliation in next February's elections for local councils.
``Because of Brazauskas, the Communist Party will do better [in February] than it did in March,'' when it was trounced in the national Congress of People's Deputies elections, says Arvydas Juozaitis, an activist in Sajudis, Lithuania's popular movement. ``Brazauskas is the only figure who can save the Lithuanian Communists for the time being.''
Thousands of LCP members have turned in their party cards in the last year - 5,000, according to Brazauskas himself - and many other members have threatened to do the same if the party fails to follow through on its plans to adopt radical reform.
Various Lithuanian parties, including the Communists, are represented under the Communist banner.
If local elections were held now, the Communist Party would win a plurality of between 30 and 35 percent of the vote, followed in descending order by the Social Democrats, Democrats, Christian Democrats, and the Greens, say Communist and non-Communist observers.
LCP officials say they would be willing to participate in a coalition government. Members of other parties, which are still getting their feet on the ground, say they would not support a coalition with the Communists. But all agree it is still too soon to tell.
In his opening address to the LCP Congress Tuesday, Brazauskas set the stage for the break with Moscow with a strongly self-critical tone. Brazauskas himself has been LCP leader only a year, following the firing of his predecessor. But he took it upon himself to apologize for decades of LCP acquiescence to central domination.
``We announce here publicly at this congress,'' he said, ``that the LCP is to blame politically for becoming a constituent part of the Stalinist totalitarian system and for carrying out its instructions.''
Lithuania was independent from 1918 to 1940, when the pact between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin paved the way for Soviet annexation of the Baltic states. Over the past few years, Gorbachev has allowed a gradual easing of central control over the Baltics.
The degree to which Brazauskas has steered the LCP away from Moscow is evidenced in the similarities between the new LCP program and the Sajudis program.
The growing radicalization of the LCP resulted in a split in the party, which was formally announced yesterday with some 15 percent of the congress delegates forming a new party. Some radical delegates preferred not to call it a split, but a cleansing process.
How far off is Lithuania from secession from the Soviet Union?
Arvydas Juozaitis says the party must try the current stage for a while and ``get acquainted with the secession process.'' Complete secession, another Sajudis member says privately, is like a nuclear bomb. It's a powerful weapon, but you can only use it once. And it may be most useful to keep it in reserve.