At stake in the drama now unfolding in Vilnius is not just the fate of Lithuania or the Baltic States but the destinies of Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika and the immediate future of progressive change in the Soviet Union. Eduard Shevardnadze knew what he was talking about when he warned just before Christmas of the imminent danger of dictatorship. There is still some mystery about what happened on the weekend of January 12-13, when a delegation of the Federation Council, the new highest executive organ of the Soviet Union, was sent to the Lithuanian capital to negotiate and Soviet troops simultaneously stormed the television tower, killing fifteen people and wounding more than a hundred. Gorbachev may not have ordered the armed intervention himself but merely accepted the fait accompli. In any event, he is now in a position from which he will find it difficult to extricate himself.
The analogy with 1956, when Russia took advantage of the Suez crisis to invade Hungary, should not be overdrawn. The Soviet Union is now a very different place. Gorbachev’s advocates can plead that any republic may now secede if it respects the rules of the new constitution. They can claim that Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis is no great lover of compromise and that some people around him are no angels. They can argue that the problem of non-natives–about a quarter of the population in Lithuania, more than a third In Estonia and nearly half in Latvia–must be tackled seriously and fairly. But the plain truth remains that you don’t spread democracy, let alone socialist democracy, by sending tanks against the people.
Of all leaders, Gorbachev seemed to have learned that lesson. After his glorious beginning with glasnost, he got bogged down. As the Soviet Union has moved from crisis to crisis, he has displayed an extraordinary talent for brinkmanship. Like one of those Russian dolls called vanka-stanka, he always recovered his balance. Indeed, he seemed to emerge from each crisis with greater nominal powers. The snag is that this increase in legal prerogatives has been coupled with a loss in popularity. Thus, when this winter’s discontent reached an explosive point, forcing him to act, he found himself rather lonely. Deserted by the so-called radicals of the priviligentsia, for whom he is too slow in his drive to the capitalist market, he has not yet built an alternative constituency, notably among the workers. Paradoxically, Gorbachev the reformer found himself increasingly reliant on the army, the police and the half-broken Communist Party.
Did the logic of that alliance drive him to the confrontation in the Baltics, or did he himself assume that he could teach a cheap lesson in the Baltics, warning the Georgians, the Moldavians and, above all, the Ukrainians that he must now be taken in earnest? Whatever his reasons, he clearly did not bargain for the conflict being so bloody or having such wide international repercussions. This is not the place to discuss Gorbachev’s evolution. For today, it is important to condemn the use of tanks against the people and to warn Gorbachev of the political consequences.
At the big January 12 demonstration in Paris against war in the gulf, among the 100,000 or so marchers the most frequently seen poster quoted a phrase from the poet Jacques Prévert: Quelle connerie la guerre–What fucking folly war is. Amid the clamor of condemnation of the bloodshed in Vilnius only those who categorically reject the much bigger midwinter madness in the gulf have earned the right, and the duty, to condemn the Soviet intervention.