MOSCOW -- President Mikhail S. Gorbachev declared Lithuania's plan to hold a referendum on independence "legally invalid" yesterday and ordered the republic to participate instead in a March poll on the preservation of the Soviet Union.
Mr. Gorbachev accused Lithuanian leaders of trying to use Saturday's referendum "to organize support for their separatist aspirations."
He said the non-binding plebiscite could only be interpreted as an attempt to block the March 17 unionwide referendum set by the Soviet parliament.
The Soviet referendum will ask voters whether they favor the "preservation of the U.S.S.R. as a renewed federation of equal, sovereign republics." But Lithuania, which declared its independence 11 months ago, plans to pre-empt the Soviet vote by asking its own citizens if they approve of Lithuania's status as a "democratic, independent republic."
Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis denounced the Gorbachev decree as "impermissible outside interference in the affairs of the sovereign Lithuanian state." He said it "reflects an old tradition of the U.S.S.R., according to which law and government arise not from the will of the people expressed by free vote but is formed by decrees of autocratic rulers."
The decree rekindled the smoldering conflict between the Kremlin and the Baltic republic of 3.8 million people, which has been a target of military force and media propaganda from Moscow in an attempt to stop its secession.
The move suggests once again that while giving lip service to dialogue, Mr. Gorbachev is prepared to pay a high price in international prestige and domestic criticism to block Baltic independence.
The Soviet Foreign Ministry sharply warned the West yesterday to stay out of the Baltic dispute, accusing Iceland of interference for its recent statement effectively recognizing Lithuanian independence.
"Attempts to draw United Nations bodies or the entire United Nations into a settlement of this domestic issue of the Soviet Union have no grounds, will be appropriately assessed and, if necessary, rebuffed by the Soviet Union," spokesman Vitaly Churkin said.
The Gorbachev decree is fraught with danger for Lithuania, where 14 people died when Soviet troops attacked demonstrators Jan. 13. Troops could see the decree as authorizing them to use force to block the Lithuanian vote.
The vote is technically already under way, since voters unable to go to the polls Saturday were permitted to pick up ballots starting Monday. Even before yesterday's decree, authorities had said they would transport ballots to Vilnius only during daylight hours to avoid night Soviet patrols.
The Lithuanian leadership agreed to Saturday's vote under pressure from Western supporters and Russian democrats who thought it necessary to establish officially residents' support for independence, which has been shown in opinion polls.
Ironically, it also accorded with Mr. Gorbachev's year-old demand that Lithuania and other independence-minded republics put the issue to a popular vote.
The Baltic republics had resisted that request, saying they had never joined the Soviet Union but had been occupied by the Red Army.
They also said that last spring's elections, in which pro-independence forces won overwhelmingly, had expressed the popular will.