MOSCOW -- With the world's attention focused on the gulf war, a battle for the future of the Soviet Union has reached a critical stage, and reformers fear the six-year struggle for democracy could be nearing a tragic end.
Last week, as President Mikhail S. Gorbachev played the role of telephone peace negotiator in world politics, his army's tanks idled ominously in and around the tense capitals of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. His top advisers were quitting or being dismissed, replaced with few exceptions by hard-liners.
As concrete barriers went up in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to defend against pro-Iraq terrorists, identical barriers were built in front of parliament buildings in Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn.
Officials feared that the first democratically elected Baltic parliaments since the Soviet occupation in 1940 could be dissolved by Soviet troops -- at the order of Mr. Gorbachev, who permitted the elections last spring.
Just as the Soviet Union seemed to have a achieved a diverse, polemical press with a wide range of views, censorship returned with a vengeance to Soviet television and appeared to threaten other media. Again, it was Mr. Gorbachev, calling in parliament for a return to government control, who seemed to be preparing to strangle his own child.
Emerging more clearly as the leader of the progressive opposition was Boris N. Yeltsin, chairman of the Russian Federation parliament. Western diplomats who once scorned Mr. Yeltsin as a lightweight or demagogue began to speak of him as a statesman who alone could halt the slide toward dictatorship.
"In these days is being decided the fate of our country," Mr. Yeltsin said in an open letter to the people of the Baltic republics, published yesterday.
"Either we will continue moving forward on the path of renewal, or the recoil that has already begun will throw us backward to the times of dictatorship, of violence against peoples and against the dignity of every person."
After Soviet troops seized Vilnius broadcast facilities a week ago, leaving 14 dead and 163 wounded, Mr. Yeltsin signed mutual aid treaties with the three Baltic republics.
His move put the giant Russian Federation on the line against the Kremlin's threat to remove the pro-independence Baltic governments.
Together with sharp Western criticism, Mr. Yeltsin's moves appeared to derail what looked like a plan to carry out military coups in all three republics.
But the conflict between Baltic independence aspirations and Mr. Gorbachev's insistence on keeping the union whole has by no means been resolved.
Yesterday, the self-appointed Latvian Public Salvation Committee declared that it was taking power in the republic and demanded the dissolution of the pro-independence parliament.
The Lithuanian National Salvation Committee, a parallel but more secretive group, made an identical announcement a week ago and has not managed to take power so far.
The obvious reason that the committees have not taken control is that they are powerless without the Soviet army, and Mr. Gorbachev has not yet given the army orders to put the committees in power.
In what could become a flash point, the Lithuanian Salvation Committee yesterday denounced an act passed by the republican parliament Friday regulating the volunteer national guard.
The committee's statement said the new law violates Soviet law and a decree of President Gorbachev banning armed groups, even if they are controlled by republican governments.
"The committee believes that the adoption of the law will lead to a fratricidal war in the republic," Tass news agency reported. The law might create a pretext for a military coup or for imposition of direct presidential rule in the republic, which would probably amount to the same thing, since the army would be necessary to enforce presidential rule.
With the Baltic crisis unresolved, the Lithuanian killings and Mr. Gorbachev's approval of them is accelerating the exodus of reformers from his staff. His two top economic advisers, Stanislav Shatalin and Nikolai Petrakov, both quit last week after signing an angry protest letter in Moscow News.
The Interfax new agency yesterday confirmed reports that Alexander Yakovlev, the key intellectual architect of the Gorbachev reforms, is definitely leaving the government. Two other members of the Presidential Council, foreign affairs specialist Yevgeny Primakov and scientist Yuri Osipyan, will not be getting new posts, the agency reported.
Two events in Moscow may be decisive for the development of the Baltic crisis: a mass demonstration set for today to protest the army's violence in Lithuania, reject dictatorship and demand Mr. Gorbachev's resignation; and an emergency meeting of the Russian Federation parliament under Mr. Yeltsin on Monday.
For Kremlin-watchers, a significant clue was an unusual television interview last night with Zdenek Mlynar, a former Czechoslovak Communist who played a key role in the Prague Spring reforms of 1968, which were ended by a Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion.
The interview was significant because of the many parallels betweenKremlin behavior toward Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Lithuanian today, and because Mr. Mlynar was once Mr. Gorbachev's Moscow State University roommate and reportedly still is a friend of the Soviet leader.
He warned Soviet democrats not to push for the secession of republics, saying that "the break-up of the union would be a blow to democracy."