AS a tense truce took hold yesterday in the Lithuanian capital, the government of President Mikhail Gorbachev is facing a rising tide of anger over the bloody assault early Sunday morning by Army troops on unarmed Lithuanian nationalists. The strong intervention of leaders of republican governments, led by Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, appears to have halted - for now - the military overthrow of the Lithuanian nationalist government.
Lithuanian President Vytautus Landsbergis told his parliament yesterday that Mr. Gorbachev, in a phone conversation with him, had authorized a delegation of republican leaders which arrived in Vilnius on Sunday to negotiate on his behalf.
Meanwhile, Gorbachev and his ministers arrived at the Soviet parliament yesterday to face a barrage of hostile questions about the legality and authority of their acts. Interior Minister Boris Pugo and Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov offered a contradictory and less than credible explanation for the events that led to the death of at least 13 people when troops seized the Lithuanian television and radio center in a pre-dawn Sunday attack.
In his speech, Gorbachev himself was silent about the affair, confining himself to the announcement of his candidate for the new prime minister and several deputy premiers. He nominated Finance Minister Valentin Pavlov as the premier, signaling continuity with the conservative economic policies of Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov's government.
But in remarks later to reporters, Gorbachev endorsed the version of events offered by his ministers, claiming the government was only responding to ``anti-Constitutional'' acts by the Lithuanian government. He claimed he heard about the Sunday attack only early that morning. He also played down the impact of the negative reaction from the West, cautioning that the Baltics were a complex situation that should not become the basis for confrontation between the Soviet Union and the West.
Gorbachev's ministers repeated the defense offered throughout the crisis by the official media. The main cause of the crisis ``is the policy of the Lithuanian leadership,'' asserted Marshal Yazov, including ``the adoption of a number of hasty anticonstitutional measures which led to widespread infringement of human rights.'' The Lithuanians, ``using democratic slogans, exerted purposeful and concerted efforts to establish a bourgeois-type dictatorship,'' the military leader said.
The interior minister described a series of events that he claimed led to political chaos and ``an extremely dangerous confrontation'' between the nationalists and people demanding establishment of presidential rule. Mr. Pugo, who used to head the KGB (secret police) in the Baltic republic of Latvia, contended the security forces has acted to halt provocative ``anti-Soviet propaganda'' being broadcast by the Lithuanian government at the request of the shadowy Committee for National Salvation, whose leaders he refused even to name.
But while making this elaborate justification for a virtual attempted coup against a democratically elected government, the two senior Kremlin officials claimed that the decisions were made by the officials on the scene. ``I can say definitely that there were no orders from the center,'' Pugo stated, evoking derisive cries of disbelief in the chamber. The defense minister went so far as to pin responsibility on the Vilnius garrison command, which he said acted to enforce law and order in keeping with the regulations of the Soviet Army.
Deputy after deputy rose to challenge this version of events, to question how it is that a unknown organization can order the Army into action against an established government. The only identified members of the Committee on National Salvation are two leaders of the small pro-Soviet Lithuanian Communist Party, deputy Moscow mayor and parliament member Sergei Stankeivich pointed out to reporters during a break.
``It is fantastic how a military commander reacted to the appeals of an underground committee,'' Mr. Stankeivich, a liberal leader, said. ``How can one call it a struggle for power?''
Maj. Vladimir Lopatin, the leader of a reform movement within the military, totally rejected the idea, based on his own military experience, that a garrison commander would make such a decision on his own.
That skepticism was even expressed by staunch Gorbachev ally, dissident historian Roy Medvedev, also a Communist Party Central Committee member. ``There may have been no orders from the center but I'm convinced that the center was fully informed,'' he told reporters in the hall. ``The very fact that Yazov did not repeal the order of the Vilnius commander amounts to agreement.''
While the Baltic crisis is far from over, Gorbachev has clearly been forced to recalculate his tactics, particularly because of the forceful intervention of the popular Russian leader Boris Yeltsin.
Yeltsin clearly worries that if the Kremlin succeeds in overthrowing the elected democratic governments of the Baltics, his radical Russian government is also in danger.