DID Soviet democracy die in the early hours of Sunday morning in the streets of Vilnius under a hail of Soviet Army bullets? The answer to that question depends in large part on whether Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the tanks to roll. If he did not, the president has lost control of his own military. If he did, he would seem to have lost faith in the process of democratization he himself set in motion.
Mr. Gorbachev confused the issue Saturday when he agreed, under pressure from Russian leader Boris Yeltsin and other republican leaders, to send a commission to investigate the situation in Lithuania, where the Soviet military is fighting to install a pro-Moscow government. On Sunday, Soviet troops stormed the republic's main TV and radio center, killing at least 13 people and injuring more than 100.
Republican leaders, including representatives of the Baltic republics, left a Saturday night meeting of the Federation Council of the leadership of the Soviet republics assured that no further use of force would take place until this mission was complete. Only hours later, military action began.
``Gorbachev decided to speed it up and finish everything before the delegation arrives in Vilnius,'' suggests a well-informed Soviet journalist who did not wish to be identified. ``Then the delegation will arrive to find `order' restored.''
The commission arrived yesterday and went to the parliament building, where the elected Lithuanian government and tens of thousands of supporters remained behind barricades. (Report from Lithuania, Page 3.)
What is clear is that the democratically elected government of Lithuania is being overthrown by the Soviet military. The Army is putting in its place a ``Committee for National Salvation,'' a thin veil for the rump of Soviet Communist Party loyalists.
Both in manner and almost to the precise detail, the events unfolding in the Lithuanian capital follow the pattern of the 1968 Soviet Army ouster of the liberal Czechoslovakian government. Then, as now, the Army actions were portrayed as the response to a group of ``patriots.''
A similar process appears to be under way in both Latvia and Estonia, the two neighboring Baltic republics where democratic governments are also pursuing independence. According to reports reaching Moscow Sunday morning, Soviet tanks rolled through the streets of Riga, the Latvian capital, late Saturday night. Estonian Radio reports that the roads to Riga are closed by Soviet troops. A mass rally called by the Latvian Popular Front, the nationalist movement, was scheduled to take place yesterday.
At a Saturday evening press conference, Estonian Prime Minister Edgar Savisaar predicted that the events in Lithuanian would be repeated in Estonia and Latvia. ``There is real evidence that they do not even have sufficient support from the Russian population [in those republics], so they are trying to use the force of the Army.''
If he made this move, Gorbachev would seem to be unconcerned about the reaction from the West.
``His only will is to preserve his power at any price,'' the Soviet journalist says bitterly. ``Now I understand his own power is much dearer to him even than friendship with Bush and the West. Now their hands are free. There is no more fear of Western reaction because the West is too occupied with the Gulf [crisis].''
United States Secretary of State James Baker III sharply criticized Moscow yesterday for using force in Lithuania, which he said would endanger the US-Soviet partnership.
In Moscow, thousands of democrats rallied yesterday under banners warning: ``Today Lithuania, Tomorrow Latvia and Estonia, The Day After Russia.'' The Democratic Russia faction of the Russian parliament called on Sunday for an emergency session of the parliament to respond to the Lithuania crisis.
Hopes that the conflict could be averted were raised on Saturday night following the Federation Council meeting, whose morning session was devoted entirely to the Lithuanian crisis. Interior Minister Boris Pugo and Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov presented what has become the official version of events - that chaos and anarchy had developed in Lithuania, that the Lithuanian government was no longer in control of the situation, and that the Army was intervening solely to restore legal order.
This account was strongly disputed by Egidius Bickauskas, the Lithuanian representative to Moscow, who attended the meeting as an observer. He was supported by Mr. Yeltsin, whose parliament had issued a strong statement denouncing the use of force in the Baltics. According to Mr. Bickauskas, the leaders of many republics spoke expressing the same position, including the leaders of Byelorussia, Moldavia, Latvia, Estonia, and Uzbekistan, calling for a political solution.
Gorbachev was described as being surprised by the views of the republic leaders.
``He was quite satisfied with the report given by Interior Minister Pugo and he was surprised at the reaction of many republics,'' Mr. Savisaar told reporters.
``What is obvious for everyone is not obvious for the president,'' Bickauskas observed.
At one point in the meeting, Savisaar told Gorbachev that the head of the Baltic Military District had informed the Estonian government that about 2,000 paratroopers would be sent to Tallinn yesterday. The decision ran counter to what had been agreed in negotiations between the Estonian government and the Defense Ministry. Both Marshal Yazov and the president, the Estonian prime minister recounted, ``said they had heard nothing about it. Yazov said if any paratroopers appear in Tallinn, it must be considered a provocation.''
The intervention of the republics compelled Gorbachev to propose sending a commission composed of several republican leaders, including nationalist Armenian President Levan Ter-Petrosyan, to provide an accurate account of what was happening.
``Everyone agreed that this problem can't be settled by force - it can be settled only through political means,'' Uzbek President Islam Karimov told reporters after the meeting. Even the Lithuanian representative, speaking to reporters later, greeted this as a ``positive'' development, as did Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis.
``Today's meeting showed the Federation Council is able to act as a collective force,'' Bickauskas said.
The events of the next hours dashed such hopes in brutal fashion. A Soviet source says Bickauskas tried to call Gorbachev during the night, but was only told the president would be informed in the morning of his call.