AS the world's attention focuses on the war in the Gulf, the nationalist government in Lithuania is preparing for an escalation in its own battle with the Soviet Army. Though the Soviet Army holds all the military cards in the battle to squash Baltic separatism in this Soviet republic, the generals and not the Lithuanian nationalists appear to be growing more desperate, and thus more ruthless, to achieve their goal.
Pro-Moscow forces in Lithuania, with the backing of the Army, have been openly seeking the ouster of President Vytautus Landsbergis and the democratically elected Lithuanian government. At the first stage, beginning last week, they resorted to intimidation and violence, seizing various publishing and television facilities. At least 14 people died in the attacks.
Moscow resorts to propaganda
Since resistance to their plans stiffened, the Moscow-inspired effort has fallen back on an anti-Lithuanian news media campaign.
The propaganda barrage - designed to isolate Lithuania within the Soviet Union - is only becoming more vicious and distorted, Lithuanian parliament spokeswoman Rita Dapkus charged. ``The people who are doing this aren't human beings,'' she said.
Official reports harangue the Lithuanian government, trying to assign it responsibility for the deaths so far, saying nationalists fired first during the paratroopers' assault on television facilities Sunday.
``The Lithuanian leadership is clearly seeking to evade responsibility and blame the country's supreme bodies of power and Communists for what happened,'' the Soviet Communist Party Politburo said in a statement issued on Wednesday.
Soviet television and the official news agency Tass consistently provide heavy coverage to statements issued by the National Salvation Committee, a shadowy front organization for the Communist Party. The reports present the Salvation Committee as a force at least equal in importance to the nationalist government that was elected by an overwhelming majority early last year. No one here, however, knows the names of any of the Committee members and many doubt its very existence.
In a statement issued Wednesday and read on Soviet television, the Committee claimed to represent a majority of the Lithuanian people, an assertion belied by the hundreds of thousands of mourners who filled the streets of Vilnius that day to mark the burial of the victims of Sunday's Soviet Army assault.
The official propaganda campaign seems designed to portray the situation in Lithuania as a civil war. It has given prominent coverage to the Salvation Committee's plea for the imposition of presidential rule in the republic. The Salvation Committee claims that the Landsbergis government was plotting to kidnap and assassinate Communist officials, an assertion widely regarded here as the most outrageous in the campaign.
Such reports develop when a well-planned coup begins to stall, said Landsbergis at a recent press conference. The propaganda campaign ``seems to be failing and they have a hard time thinking of something else,'' he added.
Kremlin turns up the heat
On Wednesday night, however, there were signals that pro-Moscow forces were preparing to turn up the heat a notch.
A special edition of the popular television program ``600 Seconds'' showed what appeared to be staged footage of Soviet Interior Ministry troops holed up in an occupied police building, preparing to defend against an imminent attack by nationalists. It also accused Lithuanians of trampling on the rights of other nationalities in the republic, including Russians, Byelorussians, and Poles.
Lithuanian officials say the program could be an attempt to set the stage for a takeover of the parliament, legitimizing military intervention by portraying the situation as out of control.
In addition, Lithuanian government officials say they have received threats that heat, electricity, and water will be cut off. There has also been increased military activity in the capital. About 100 trucks carrying about 1,000 troops and some artillery pieces arrived in Vilnius on Wednesday, Landsbergis told reporters. Helicopters were being stockpiled in Minsk, the Lithuanian government Information Department said.
About the only option open to Landsbergis in the present situation is negotiation. But in the face of such hostile opposition, Lithuanian officials say there is not much reason for optimism.
``We have always been for a dialogue, even after their forces killed our civilians,'' Landsbergis said.
The Lithuanian president has held talks with visiting delegations and military leaders, including Maj. Gen. Vladimir Uskhopchik, the Vilnius garrison commander, and Gen. Boris Gromov, the deputy interior minster. So far, the discussions have produced few results.
Republics give support
Lithuania is encouraged, however, by the support it is getting from other republics seeking greater sovereignty, most notably the Russian Republic. Russian President Boris Yeltsin has been outspoken in his defense of the embattled Baltic republic, thus drawing fire from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. There is a growing sense among other republics that the military action is not just an assault on the Baltic independence drive, but an attempt to roll back newly gained liberties in general.
``Yeltsin realizes if he did not act this way, his fate would have been sealed,'' said Pavel Voshchanov, Russia's newly appointed permanent representative in Vilnius.
Most Lithuanians admit the pro-Moscow forces have the ability to end the current standoff at any time. Officials expect an imminent attack on parliament, especially now that war in the Gulf has started and Western attention is diverted.
``It's disappointing to us to know our independence could be crushed and the West would barely take notice,'' Ms. Dapkus said. ``The Soviets know this all too well and they'll likely move soon.''
Although Lithuanian volunteers continue to shore up defenses around the parliament building, officials admit that they would not be able to resist a Soviet Army assault for long. Officials increasingly anticipate martyrdom in their statements.