SINCE the Baltic republics are not that important economically to the Soviet Union, it might seem surprising that Gorbachev would choose to use intimidation in Lithuania and risk that his tactics could alienate the West and reduce badly needed economic assistance. But Gorbachev is concerned about the possibility of initiating a domino effect and his hard-line policies in Lithuania are also intended as a warning to the other pro-independence republics.
Moscow's greatest concern must be the possibility of losing the Ukraine, the second largest Soviet republic with a population of 52 million and a territory larger than France. During the revolution of 1917, Ukraine tried to steer its national course independent of Russia, but was later incorporated into the Soviet Union by force. So important was Ukraine to the Soviet economy at that time, that Lenin confided to his fellow Bolsheviks: ``If we lose Ukraine, we will lose our heads.''
Later, Stalin tried to remove the threat of Ukraine's secession once and for all by breaking the spirit of the Ukrainian nation. In the '30s he created an artificial famine to crush the resistance of Ukrainian farmers to collectivized agriculture, decimated the nationally conscious intelligentsia to eliminate opposition, and destroyed the Ukrainian Church to extinguish the faith of the people.
The threat of Ukraine's secession today is still, first and foremost, economic. This proverbial ``breadbasket of Europe'' is the largest European producer of grains, cattle, dairy products and sugar. In natural resources Ukraine leads Europe in coal, iron ore, manganese, titanium, and natural gas. Its industry is a major producer of metals, chemicals, tractors, ships, aircraft, turbines, agricultural and mining equipment, and textiles. Most of the profits from Ukraine's production go directly into the Moscow's coffers. In fact, some two thirds of Ukraine's gross national product leaves the republic without compensation.
To keep Ukrainian nationalist sentiments in check, Gorbachev retained Vladimir Scherbitsky, the old, hard-line party boss long after the introduction of perestroika in the rest of the USSR. Not until six months ago, when the clamor for reform could no longer be suppressed, did Gorbachev replace Scherbitsky with another loyal servant, Volodymyr Ivashko. Judging from the way Ivashko manipulated the recent republican elections, he, too, has been given the task of keeping Ukraine under control. During the election campaign, electoral fraud was perpetrated by the Communist Party to maintain its hold on power. (Because Western reporters and foreign observers were barred from the country, few reports of this fraud reached the West.) Despite its efforts, the party lost most of the urban seats to candidates from the Democratic Bloc.
Some 200,000 troops were brought from various parts of the Soviet Union to conduct maneuvers in Ukraine during the elections. It's not clear whether they were there to intimidate voters, or cast additional votes for Party candidates. However, Ivashko managed to eke out a victory only in the second round when many of these soldiers were given last minute permission to vote.
The most successful candidates in the Democratic Bloc were those put forward by Rukh, the Ukrainian Movement for Restructuring. Prior to the elections Rukh considered itself moderate and nonpolitical, advocating economic, environmental, social and cultural reforms within the framework of the Ukrainian SSR. During the election campaign the party barred Rukh and other Democratic Block candidates from access to the media. It refused to publicly debate with the Rukh candidates issues of critical national importance, and even resorted to using the KGB to try to undermine Rukh by sowing religious discord and inciting inter-ethnic violence (a ploy tested earlier with great success in Azerbaijan).
Because of these attempts by the party to subvert it, Rukh came out of the election prepared to declare itself a political party and to campaign for Ukraine's secession from the Soviet Union. Prominent literary figures (Ivan Drach and Dmytro Pavlychko) resigned from the party, publicly stating that ``we can only serve the truth by leaving the Communist Party and joining a democratic party.'' They charged that ``imperialist chauvinism remains the soul of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.'' It is interesting to note, that at about this time Gorbachev rushed through his presidential reforms and hurriedly assumed this all-powerful office. Presidential rule can be a powerful tool for quelling insurrection in non-Russian republics.
On March 21 tens of thousands demonstrated on the streets of the western Ukrainian city of Lvov to express their solidarity with Lithuania. A Rukh statement welcomed ``the decision for renewal of an independent Lithuanian state and its return to the family of the free nations of the world,'' and it warned Moscow that if violence was used in Lithuania, ``we will reply by organizing a political strike.'' The official Soviet news agency TASS reacted by claiming that these pro-Lithuanian demonstrations ``would lead to a destabilization of the situation in Ukraine'' and accused Rukh of trying ``to inflame separatist feelings, so as to shatter the USSR.'' Ukraine's political reawakening and its declaration of solidarity with Lithuania's pro-secessionist stand appear to have evoked great concern in Moscow.
Ironically, Gorbachev himself appears to have realized some time ago that the Soviet federation must be restructured. At his installation as President, he stated that ``the fate of perestroika will be determined largely by the way we reshape the federation.'' He had proposed earlier that the republics be given greater autonomy from Moscow in cultural, economic and even political spheres. Some leading Russian intellectuals have gone further, suggesting that the Soviet Union should be disbanded to open the way for creating an alliance, perhaps even a new confederation, of independent nations loosely connected in a kind of East-European common market.
To date, however, these proposals have not been supported with any deeds to give the republics hope that a serious restructuring of the Soviet Union is imminent. But as more and more of the republics begin to declare themselves for self-determination, the opportunity for Moscow to try to restructure the Soviet federation is quickly fading. Its recent proposal to consider allowing some republics to secede peacefully (in the hope of retaining good relations with them in the future) or cracking down militarily. A military solution to the problem is probably an unacceptable option for Gorbachev because it would destroy all hope for the success of perestroika internally and poison Moscow's relations with the West for years to come.
A pro-independence candidate running in the Ukranian city of Kharkov, Henrich Altuyanin, summarized Moscow's imperial dilemma in this way: ``We will continue to make progress, step by step, because we are already talking about those things that they are still afraid to think about in Moscow. Today it is Lithuania, tomorrow - the Caucasian republics, and the day after tomorrow - it will be Ukraine.''