Lithuanians defy Gorbachev, vote for republic's independence

February 10, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff Correspondent

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- Thousands of Lithuanians cheerfully defied Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and flocked to the polls yesterday to show their overwhelming support for independence, while the Kremlin dispatched troops to the republic to show they haven't won it yet.

With all but a few precincts reporting by early this morning, just over 90 percent of voters had backed Lithuania's self-proclaimed status as a "democratic, independent republic," the Lithuanian Election Commission said.

Turnout in the referendum was just over 84 percent, despite a boycott by Moscow loyalists.

Appearing on television last night -- a jury-rigged broadcast because Soviet troops still occupy the republic's main TV studios -- Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis congratulated citizens on "a good day."

"The great majority of people in Lithuania no longer have any fear and once again express their determination to the world," he said. "Today we did good work, and we took one more step along the road to independence."

Mr. Gorbachev had discounted the expected result of the voting in advance, declaring it "legally invalid." He said it was an attempt to skirt the unionwide referendum set by the Soviet parliament for March 17, which will ask voters whether the Soviet Union should be preserved.

To underscore Soviet power over Lithuania and its Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Estonia, the Soviet armed forces today begin 10 days of "training exercises" in the three republics. Dozens of trucks carrying troops were spotted in the early hours yesterday in both Vilnius and the second largest city of Kaunas, while the republic's information service alleged that 1,400 KGB cadets had flown in from Central Asia and Siberia on Friday.

The timing of the troop movements was clearly aimed at intimidation, particularly after the Jan. 13 attack by troops on demonstrators at Lithuanian broadcast facilities that left 14 dead. But there were no immediate reports of troops' interfering with the balloting.

Lithuanian officials and citizens at the polls said they were beyond intimidation. "We have nowhere to retreat to. We can only move forward, no matter what happens," said Dalius Sulekauskas, 43, a driver for Lithuanian television and radio who said he voted "yes."

Voters said the plebiscite is more than an exercise in proving what has long been obvious from opinion polls and election returns: that Lithuanians want out of the Soviet Union.

They said the vote should clinch Western backing for independence and quiet demagogic claims from Moscow that "the people," unlike the nationalist leaders they have elected, really want to stay in the union.

"I voted for an independent Lithuania," said Violetta Bulotiene, manager of an advertising agency, as she walked out of Vilnius' Precinct 24 at midafternoon. "It's so natural. How could anyone vote against it?"

Ms. Bulotiene, 40, said she became an active backer of independence after visiting relatives in the United States nearly 20 years ago. Now, she said, she wants the United States to pay attention to the poll.

"I hope once we demonstrate in a vote the overwhelming support for independence, the U.S. will recognize Lithuania diplomatically," she said. "I hope other countries will help us and support us."

About 80 percent of the population of 3.8 million, and 80 percent of the 2.7 million voters, are ethnic Lithuanians. Interviews by The Sun at polling places in three cities yesterday failed to turn up any ethnic Lithunanians who admitted to not voting or voting no.

But the strategy of the opposition, mainly Slav workers led by the small remaining number of Moscow-loyal Communists, was to boycott the referendum. In some heavily Russian, Byelorussian and Polish districts, turnout was as low as 15 percent to 30 percent.

Pyotr Ozernov, 55, a Russian electrician at the big 40th Anniversary of October machine-building factory in the suburb of New Vilnius, went to Precinct 195 -- but did not vote.

With a handful of like-minded opponents of independence, he sat at a table and kept a lookout for fraud. By making rows of tiny crosses on a piece of paper as voters dropped their marked ballots into the box, he said, he could check the number of votes officially recorded and see if independence activists were cheating.

"What do they want to be independent of?" snarled Mr. Ozernov, who has lived 26 years in Lithuania. "Do they want to live independent of Siberian natural gas and Baku oil?"

Like many Russians and several Lithuanians interviewed, Mr. Ozernov complained that the question on the ballot was ambiguous.

They said the question should have specified that -- as Mr. Landsbergis repeatedly explained -- a vote for independence meant independence outside the Soviet Union.

Some Russians, as well as the Moscow media, saw the omission of a specific reference to secession from the union as an attempt to swindle voters. Some Lithuanians were unhappy that the ambiguity of the question gave the Kremlin the chance to claim that some people who voted "yes" might nonetheless prefer an "independent" Lithuania inside the Soviet Union.

But by no means all non-Lithuanians boycotted or voted no. Natalya and Alexander Kosarev, a Russian couple, let their 3-year-old daughter Yulia drop their ballots in the box -- both in favor of independence.

"Because Lithuania should be democratic and free, that's all," said Mrs. Kosarev, 34, who was born in Lithuania and speaks Lithuanian.

In the town of Elektrenai, Ukrainian Anatoly Vlasenko was serving as a precinct chairman -- and hoping for a big "yes" vote. "I grew up here. My children grew up here. Of course I want independence," he said.

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