Lithuania's Declaration

LIITHUANIANS weren't about to be waylaid by Soviet threats of economic warfare. The Baltic republic's parliament, dominated by nationalists after the Feb. 24 elections, declared their nation's independence. Lithuania's declaration accents the centrifugal forces at work across the Soviet Union. Nationalist movements are growing from the Ukraine to the Central Asian republics. Calls for secession, loudest in the Baltics, have also been heard in Soviet Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Will Lithuania hasten this process?

Moscow's nervous leaders hope not. The danger in the Baltics' rush toward succession, in their view, has always been that others would rush to follow. Mikhail Gorbachev talks mainly of the economic ruination facing secessionist republics. But he's thinking, also, of possible political ruin if his brittle nation begins to chip off around the edges. A Russian nationalist backlash is one possibility. Mr. Gorbachev's response to the Lithuanian action, which he calls ``alarming,'' could profoundly affect his political fortunes and his image abroad.

Arm-twisting now begins in earnest. Moscow asserts that Lithuania's debt to the union for investments over the years totals $33 billion. The Lithuanians, however, can present their own equally large bill for lives and property lost during 50 years of Soviet occupation.

Some in Lithuania may wonder if their new president, Vytautus Landsbergis, has the grit to negotiate an independence deal with Moscow. Mr. Landsbergis heads the nationalist organization Sajudis and before that he taught music. He'll have help, however, from communists cum nationalists like former president Algirdas Brazauskas.

Has Lithuania moved too fast to break the Soviet yoke? Considering events of recent months, Lithuanians could ask if there would ever be a better time. They aren't likely to be swayed by Moscow's pressure. Prospects, both economic and political, appear brighter outside the Soviet Union than inside.

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