Soviet protesters condemn army killings in Lithuania

January 21, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- At least 100,000 demonstrators rallied in the snow outside the Kremlin yesterday to protest army killings in Lithuania and to demand the resignation of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the hard-line aides with whom they say he is retreating from reform.

The rally ended several hours before Soviet Internal Affairs Ministry riot troops assaulted headquarters of the Latvian Internal Affairs Ministry in Riga, producing a large-scale shootout.

The turnout at the Moscow demonstration, estimated by police at more than 100,000, rivaled the rallies of last February for the title of the biggest non-Communist political gathering in this capital since the 1917 revolution.

The death of 14 people and wounding of 163 when Soviet troops seized Vilnius broadcast facilities a week ago has clearly galvanized the faltering Russian democratic movement.

"Today Lithuania -- Tomorrow Russia," said one poster. "Russia, Get Ready -- War Communism Is Coming," said another. As they marched, they chanted: "Down with the Communist Party," "Dictatorship will not pass!" and "Gorbachev, resign!"

The showing heartened political activists, who said it proved that despite demoralizing food lines and exhaustion with politics, people will not passively accept a slide back to dictatorship.

Despite a Kremlin-directed news media campaign aimed at igniting Russian nationalism against Lithuania's pro-independence leadership, the rally showed that many Russians tie their own democratic aspirations to other republics' independence drives.

Sergei B. Stankevich, Moscow's deputy mayor, said that the current crisis is "one of the most critical moments in Russian history" and called for courage. "Don't allow the freedom for which we've paid so dearly to perish," he said.

Oleg T. Bogomolov, an expert on Eastern Europe, said the propaganda tactics used by the Brezhnev leadership in preparing for the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia were being "reanimated and used in our own country."

But the political hero of the rally was Russian Federation leader Boris N. Yeltsin, who has put the power of the Soviet Union's largest republic on the line to protect the sovereignty of the tiny Baltic states against further Kremlin incursions.

Mr. Yeltsin stayed away for fear of an assassination attempt. But an associate, parliamentarian Gennady Burbulis, read Mr. Yeltsin's "appeal to the citizens of Russia," which called on democratic forces to unite against political reaction.

In the appeal, Mr. Yeltsin accused Mr. Gorbachev of rejecting the reforms he had started and violating his oath of office by supporting self-appointed "committees of national salvation" rather than the constitutionally elected leaders of the Baltic republics.

"Contrary to [Mr. Gorbachev's] talk of universal human values, a law-based state, and freedom, we see an attempt to preserve at any price the power of the top of the party-state bureaucracy," he said.

"The goals proclaimed to all the world have been cast aside. Economic reforms are blocked, democracy is betrayed, glasnost is trampled. Lawlessness and dictate are being restored," he said.

Mr. Yeltsin rejected a growing, if still minority view that only a hardline regime can solve Russia's problems.

"Don't believe that dictatorship will feed us, put an end to crime, bring safety and peace to every home. Violence can beget only violence," he said.

He appealed for "restraint and determination" and asked all residents of Russia to express their political views in letters, petitions, resolutions, rallies or any other legal means. Any extreme action would simply give a pretext for responding with military force, he said.

Despite his sharp denunciation of Mr. Gorbachev's recent actions, Mr. Yeltsin again offered to talk. "We are ready at any moment to open negotiations with the union leaders to work out coordinated and joint actions," he said.

He told Communist Party members that the "country is awaiting from you a determination of your position, confirmation that you're against restoration of the old order."

"It is in our power to stop the reaction," Mr. Yeltsin said. "We have enough power to stop the slide of the union government into lawlessness and the use of force, and show that democracy is irreversible."

The early demonstrations of the perestroika era were pro-Gorbachev in tone.

Yesterday's rally was unprecedented in its complete disillusionment with Mr. Gorbachev, whom it classified unambiguously as an enemy of democracy.

Yuri D. Chernichenko, a writer and member of Parliament, ridiculed Mr. Gorbachev's recent promotion policy. "Killing Georgian girls will get you the title of marshal," he said -- the promotion received by Defense Minister Dmitry T. Yazov despite troops' attack on peaceful demonstrators in Tbilisi in 1989.

"For destroying the economy and undermining the ruble, you get to become prime minister," Mr. Chernichenko said, referring to Mr. Gorbachev's recent appointment of Finance Minister Valentin Pavlov to the premiership. "Teach others to lie, and you become head of television," he said, speaking of Leonid P. Kravchenko, whose brief reign as head of Soviet television and radio has seen a return to censorship and disinformation.

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