Lithuania Elections Signal Deep Splits Over Future

Nationalist leaders tell voters that harsh living conditions are the result of a Russian plot, but many others blame the economic crisis on government incompetence

LITHUANIAN leader Vytautus Landsbergis sits in his elegant, wood-paneled office in the parliament building, his hands clutched tightly against the cold. Downstairs, members of the parliament he leads wear overcoats as they deliberate in the square chamber.

All of Lithuania is shivering in cold apartments and office buildings as winter's chill sets in. There is no heat, the result of a three-month shut-off of Russian oil and gas supplies. After an agreement in Moscow last week, oil began to flow, but its continuation is far from certain.

Back in this Baltic nation, the energy crisis has generated a different form of heat, the kind that comes from warring politicians hurling charges against each other. With Lithuania headed for its first election since independence next Sunday, competing politicians are eagerly laying blame. For voters, the unbroken cold is merely the latest symptom of their country's downward economic spiral.

The soft-spoken, but fiery nationalist leader Landsbergis and his followers in the Sajudis movement see the familiar hand of Russian interference. They compare the shut-off to the economic blockade imposed by then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev following the March 1990 declaration of independence. They tell voters it is a Russian plot, aimed at aiding the election prospects of the left-wing Democratic Labor Party, the pro-independence wing of the former Communist Party.

"Now we have [the] basis to think the Russian Gorbachevists wish to see the Lithuanian Gorbachevists in power here," Landsbergis says in an interview. While he sees the Russian Army as a more dangerous foe than Russian President Boris Yeltsin, both "want to have as much influence on Lithuania as possible."

Algirdas Brazauskas, the square-jawed, silver-haired leader of the Labor Party, dismisses such anticommunist rhetoric, and blames the crisis on the government's incompetence in handling negotiations with Moscow over the price of energy imports. He explains to a hall packed with workers and their wives from the giant fertilizer plant in the city of Jonova that - given Lithuania's dependence on the Russian economy - they simply have to maintain good relations with the feared and powerful neighbor.

The reformist socialist assails "all those people who said we could ignore this, who said we could deal only with the West. But we are too poor, like church mice, to buy only from the West." Followers defect

Such views are shared by the centrist parties, whose ranks have swelled during the past year with disaffected Sajudis members who accuse Landsbergis of becoming a captive of radicals.

"This tension [with Russia] is artificially maintained," says Sarunas Davainis, one of Lithuania's richest entrepreneurs and a candidate of the right center Liberal Party. The mustachioed businessman echoes an oft-heard view that after the failed Soviet coup last August the government should have focused on economics.

Most observers here discount the idea of a plot by Russia to extort prices above world markets, as Landsbergis has charged. "[Landsbergis's] political thinking tends to be conspiratorial," says one senior Western diplomat here. "But it isn't without some basis. He's got a lot of bruises from the independence struggle."

Indeed the repeated Soviet efforts to block independence with military force clearly press upon Landsbergis. The former music historian has shown fierce determination in his effort to force the withdrawal of the Soviet - now Russian - forces still stationed here. In early September he emerged triumphant from a summit with Mr. Yeltsin to complete the withdrawal by next summer.

But during the year since the world recognized Lithuanian independence, Landsbergis's victories against Moscow have lost much of their political value, and Yeltsin delayed the troop withdrawal on Tuesday.

"Landsbergis was a good leader against Moscow but now the situation has changed," says parliament member Arunas Degutis. "All our problems are internal now, but Landsbergis uses the same methods internally, against the opposition, as he did against Moscow."

Mr. Degutis, a young independence activist, was an early member of Sajudis and is a personal friend of Landsbergis. But he joined many other Sajudis deputies during this past year in leaving to form new centrist parties, depriving the government of its once comfortable majority. Catalyst for break

The catalyst for the break with Landsbergis was his drive to establish a presidency which would have given him tremendous powers, including the right to dissolve parliament. The center groups joined the left in defeating that measure in May. In July, they pooled their votes in a no-confidence motion that ousted Premier Gediminas Vagnorius, the young government leader whose arrogant style made him a target of the opposition.

The parliamentary wars reached such a pitch that for weeks on end the opposing sides refused even to meet in the same hall. Adding fuel to the fire, a Sajudis-led parliamentary commission investigating the presence of KGB agents among the parliament's members has charged numerous left-wing parliamentarians with KGB links.

The centrist parties, which include the left-center Social Democrats, the Center Movement, and the right-center Liberal Party, may well garner a large share of the vote, particularly from voters tired of political polemics. Engineer Augis Babitskas is one such voter, expressing disgust with "radical forces" on both the left and right, saying he would cast his ballot for someone from the "center."

For Mr. Landsbergis, however, there is no "center" in the struggle against the "communists." He attacks in quiet tones "people who are now on the side of the Communist party" and "misleading [the people]."

The parliamentary election is an effort to end the deadlock in Lithuanian politics. The 141 seats in the Seym (parliament) are divided between 71 elected in one-man districts and the rest awarded proportionally to all parties getting more than 4 percent of the total vote. The latter is an effort to shrink the fractured party system, in which some 17 parties and coalitions of parties are competing in this election. Majority unlikely

But most pre-election forecasts predict that no one will emerge from this election with a working majority. The former Communists are expected to get 20-25 percent of the vote, depending in large part on a base of rural voters unhappy with the government's land-reform program. Sajudis and two allied right-wing groupings are projected to fall short of a majority, leaving the center parties with the balance. Even if a coalition is formed, observers fear it will fall apart quickly under the pressure of econ omic collapse.

"This election will not resolve everything," says center leader Bickauskas, "and the situation may get worse."

Even Landsbergis is less than optimistic. "Even if the composition of the parliament doesn't change much," he says with shrug, "we had to try it."

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