`WHAT should the United States do about Lithuania?'' That question was rekindled when President Bush met with Vytautas Landsbergis last month but takes on a new urgency as Moscow sends paratroopers to Lithuania and other republics to round up draft resisters. At this writing, Soviet troops and tanks have surrounded the main TV station in Vilnius - an action that could be a precursor to a coup. Such events put the February summit in Moscow at risk. Significant suppression of the Balts by Gorbachev will gravely damage US-Soviet relations. The White House revealed little about the Bush-Landsbergis talks but the meeting sent an important message to Gorbachev: ``We need your support for American Persian Gulf policies and want your reforms to succeed, but don't take the harsh measures some Soviet hard-liners have been advocating in your press.''
Mr. Landsbergis was more forthcoming in a press conference at Lithuania's Washington legation. The soft-spoken Lithuanian said yes, Moscow had threatened to cut off food, energy, and raw materials if the Lithuanians did not sign a new economic agreement. ``The specific demand made on us was that we remain in the central planning, finance, and taxation system and ... give over to the Soviet authorities the hard currency that we earn.'' He added that the Soviets hoped that ``General Winter'' would force the Lithuanians to bow to Moscow's demands. ``But we are convinced that we are going to fend off the attack and emerge victorious.''
Landsbergis said when he requested political protections against oppressive Soviet policies, Bush responded favorably. But on reconciliation between Moscow and Vilnius, Bush alluded to a solution favored by Gorbachev, a referendum. Lithuania has rejected a referendum for two reasons. First, with large Russian populations, neither Latvia nor Estonia could achieve the two-thirds yes vote needed to bolt from the USSR. Secondly, the very acceptance of a referendum suggests that the Baltic republics have been legally annexed by the USSR. Instead, the former musicologist suggested that the ``four plus two'' talks that led to German reunification be modified for the Baltic crisis. His formula included ``four, (the US, USSR, Britain, and France) plus three,'' the Baltic countries. Bush did not pick up on the idea, reasoning, no doubt, that Gorbachev would never tolerate this interference in domestic Soviet affairs.
But like the talks that led to German reunification, the ``four plus three'' talks are an international matter, part of World War II. As long as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, justifying Stalin's subjugation of the Baltic countries, remains intact, the last act of the great drama remains to be played. And like Shakespeare's ``Hamlet,'' ghosts are critical to the plot. In this case, they are Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin, who signed Lithuania's death warrant in 1939.
Unfortunately, Gorbachev has not exorcised Stalin's ghost from the Kremlin's halls. In October discussions with Lithuanian authorities Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Rzyhkov said a ``peoples' revolution,'' and not the infamous pact, was the justification for Lithuanian's annexation.
For those who wish Gorbachev well on democratic reform, Rzyhkov's Stalinist apologia is cause for concern. Red Army tanks and not a free election forced the Lithuanians into the Soviet empire. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US national security adviser, has observed, until Gorbachev acknowledges the Balts right of national self-determination, the fate of democracy in the USSR is sealed.
Indeed, oppressive policies may provide a short-term solution for Gorbachev. The Balts refusal to serve in the Red Army rests on a 1949 Geneva ruling that citizens of an occupied country are not required to serve in the army of the invading forces. Gorbachev's refusal to recognize international law will preclude peaceful long-term solutions to his economic, political, and nationalities problems. And a worsening situation in the USSR could foster instability throughout Europe and sabotage US-Soviet relations. Against this backdrop, the ``four plus three'' formula makes sense. There is no justification for the Baltics's incorporation into the USSR, and while the Big Four powers may deem their restoration of independence an inconvenience, it is legally and morally justified and must be addressed, not ignored.