The truly important news from the Soviet Union is not what President Mikhail S. Gorbachev may or may not do about independence referendums set by Lithuania and Estonia. The Baltic nations have so repeatedly and so strongly voiced their wish for independence that whatever the Kremlin does has little lasting significance.
Far more crucial are the increasingly shrill attacks on Mr. Gorbachev's handling of the Soviet Union's affairs during his six years in power. Those attacks initially focused on the worsening economic conditions at home but now have been extended to foreign policy. The question asked is: who lost the Soviet empire?
Of particular significance is a full-page interview Mr. Gorbachev's former arch-rival, Yegor Ligachev, gave to the conservative newspaper Sovetskaya Rossiya. In the interview, Mr. Ligachev denounced Mr. Gorbachev for abandoning such traditional Marxist concepts as class struggle. (According to that dogma, capitalism is the implacable enemy of communism and while periods of coexistence may be opportune, no conciliation is possible.)
Mr. Ligachev went on to criticize Mr. Gorbachev for mistakes that contributed to a "major defeat for international socialism" in Eastern Europe. He said that East Germany had simply been swallowed by West Germany, the Warsaw Pact military alliance had disintegrated and capitalism was being restored in most countries that formerly belonged to the Soviet bloc.
Although Mr. Ligachev has lost his official position, his is a powerful attack. It comes at a time when communist hardliners in general are ganging up on Mr. Gorbachev, lambasting his stewardship of domestic politics and international affairs. "There can be no talk now about a multi-party system," Ivan Polozhkov, leader of the reactionary Russian Communist Party, thundered just the other day. "Black-marketeers, ethnic separatists and the heirs of overthrown classes have assembled under the banner of democracy and are declaring anti-communism as their ideology."
The conservative sharks, a blood-thirsty species which once was thought to have been tamed, are becoming increasingly bold. They see a wounded President Gorbachev and feel certain his time is running out. Mr. Gorbachev himself looks desperate. Even the tough and uncompromising tone of his pronouncements cannot hide the erratic nature of his actions. This is particularly true about the Baltics, where his record of statements shows no consistency at all.
All this bodes ill to the Soviet Union. It also promises a rocky road for the improved Soviet-American relationship of the past several years.