INSTEAD of paving the way for negotiations, the recent Lithuanian independence plebiscite may further polarize the already rocky relations between nationalists and the Kremlin. Totals from Saturday's republicwide poll surprised even some of the most ardent Lithuanian nationalists. About 90 percent of the 2.4 million people who voted said ``yes'' to the question: ``Do you agree the Lithuanian state should be a sovereign and democratic republic?'' Overall, about 84 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
The results are even more astounding considering the efforts made by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to discourage a large turnout.
A few days before the vote, Mr. Gorbachev declared in a television address he would not recognize the poll, saying it had ``no legal foundation.'' Despite the president's declaration, as well as an Army announcement that it would hold maneuvers throughout the Baltics the day after the poll, no measures were taken to stop people from casting ballots.
``We have proved the people are unanimous,'' said Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis at a news conference. ``This will give strength and patience to the nation - things we may need in the future.''
So far, Gorbachev has yet to comment on the results. But it's clear the Lithuanian vote is a serious challenge to his authority and his desire for a successful March 17 national referendum on maintaining the Soviet Union. Already the republics of Estonia, Latvia, Georgia, and Armenia have announced they won't participate in the referendum. Estonia has its own independence vote scheduled for March 3, and the Russian Republic is adding a proposal on the direct election of its president. If the Lithuanians continue with their hard-nosed approach to independence, it may encourage other republics to resist Gorbachev, observers said.
Thus, the poll only raised the chances of more blood being spilled in the Baltics, says a Western diplomat in Lithuania to observe the vote. So far, 20 people have died in Moscow's attempt to squash the sovereignty-seeking Baltic republics.
``This will radicalize things,'' said the diplomat. ``The Lithuanians will now be more convinced than ever that they are acting correctly, and the Soviets now will be more likely to use radical methods to stop it.''
Both sides have said they hope for negotiations to settle their differences. Gorbachev has appointed a negotiating team to talk to Vilnius, but a sticking point is Lithuania's condition that Moscow recognize the republic's independence.
``We want relations to be partner-like, not colonial-like in character,'' Mr. Landsbergis said. ``We still hope to find some agreement.''
With its mandate, the Lithuanian government can turn its attention to working out programs on privatization of state property and agricultural reform, Landsbergis told the Monitor. But roadblocks may remain, observers said, adding that the poll did nothing to ease ethnic tension, the most troublesome issue facing the republic.
Gorbachev has used the nationalities issue effectively in the past to split Lithuanian society. More than 80 percent of the population is ethnic Lithuanian, but the republic is also home to Russians, Poles, and Byelorussians.
The government in Vilnius made some effort to reach out to non-Lithuanians before the poll. Campaign posters, as well as ballots, were printed in Lithuanian, Russian, and Polish. The move appeared to pay off, as results showed 50 percent of the non-Lithuanian nationalities supporting independence.
``The plebiscite should make it more difficult for our opponents to use their old arguments to try and cheat world opinion,'' Landsbergis said.
But the figures may be somewhat misleading.
``I voted `yes,' but I actually wanted to vote `no,''' said Gala, a 60-year-old ethnic Byelorussian factory worker who declined to give her last name. ``If we didn't come to vote, they [the nationalists] could find out and who knows what they might do? They might try to expel us.''
On about a dozen of the 1,258 ballots counted at a voting precinct in central Vilnius, a ``yes'' vote was accompanied with the written-in comment ``but without Landsbergis.''
``Landsbergis is simply an extremist who uses fascist methods,'' said Elena, a 67-year-old ethnic Polish pensioner.
In addition, while Lithuanians appear ready to accept economic hardship and high prices as part of the independence drive, other nationalities aren't. In some ethnic-Russian strongholds, voter turnout was below 50 percent, as many stayed away from the polls in protest.
``Will it improve our economic position? I think not,'' said Grigory Skakunov, election commission head in the mainly Russian-speaking town of Rudamina, about eight miles from Vilnius. ``Most people around here feel you can't live without the Soviet Union.''
A possible solution to current sovereignty standoff is the new-style union of sovereign republics - the idea of Russian leader Boris Yeltsin. But, as Landsbergis, said, ``Everything depends on interpretation - on how people see it. There are many variations.''
Distrust for Moscow is entrenched in the Lithuanian psyche, especially after the Jan. 13 paratrooper assault on Vilnius television facilities, in which 13 unarmed civilians died.
In some ways, the election was meant to bolster the morale of Lithuanians, who have felt almost unrelenting pressure from the Kremlin since the republic declared independence last March 11.
Many Lithuanians are still sensitive about Moscow's propaganda campaign, which blamed all the troubles on the ``unconstitutional actions'' of the Lithuanian leadership.
``The people are showing what is in their hearts,'' said 80-year-old Anna Norvaisaite. ``This is an answer to the lies from Moscow that we are responsible for events.''