After six years of reform and hope, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is now heading a government that seems to be returning to the policies of duplicity and lawlessness. Unless this can be halted, Lithuania will be only the beginning of a mournful journey back to the Stalinist past.
In Lithuania, a democratically elected constitutional government is gradually being overthrown by paratroopers answering the call of a shadowy group of pro-Moscow communists. Such "calls for help" by quislings have been a standard Soviet tactic, from the forced 1940 annexation of the Baltic republics to the invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. Their repeat now is particularly shocking to millions in the West who put their faith in Mr. Gorbachev.
If President Gorbachev did not agree with the crack paratroopers' murderous operation, he had an ample opportunity to say so. Instead, the Kremlin leader sought to explain that the use of military force was ordered by a local commandant and that he learned about it only later. For his part, Maj. Gen. Vladimir N. Uskhochnik, the commandant, said he derived his authority from the president.
Clearly, Mr. Gorbachev bears full responsibility for the bloodshed and the gross violations of law that now threaten the whole edifice of legality that were to prevent the Soviet Union from ever again returning to the arbitrariness of Stalinism.
Against this background of double-talk and unprincipled cowardice, Russian President Boris Yeltsin cuts a courageous figure. His defense of Baltic independence along with his appeals for a negotiated settlement are the only rays of hope in the gloominess of a storm. In urging Russian soldiers not to fire on unarmed civilians and "become a weapon in the hands of the dark forces of reaction," he has embarked on a dangerous course that puts him in a deadly conflict with Mr. Gorbachev, the KGB and the military.
Mr. Yeltsin knows what he is doing -- the strangling of Lithuania's constitutional government left him with no alternatives. Unless stopped in the Baltics, a gradual crackdown will eventually also crush the newly-won self-determination of the Russian and other republics.
As the attention of much of the world is transfixed on the crisis in the Persian Gulf, the battle for the Soviet Union is on. It is a battle between reformers and reactionaries -- with Mr. Gorbachev in his new role as a sad example of a man who is betraying his professed ideals.