From the Baltics to Beijing

A.M. Rosenthal

August 26, 1991|By A.M. Rosenthal

THE WORLD rejoices about what happened in Moscow, and nobody more than Li Lu, who lies starving on a street in Washington, outside the embassy of China.

Li was one of the thousands of young people at Tiananmen Square who went without food day after day, trying to shake the communist rulers into surrendering a morsel of freedom. Now, in America, he is on a hunger strike again, praying that this will make the world remember some of his comrades, lying in dark isolation in communist cells.

Although his heartbeat is dangerously low, he is filled with zest. He feels that the triumph in the streets of Moscow will bring freedom closer for China. That hope is not political emotionalism. Li and his friends have too much at stake -- liberty and life -- to

waste time and energies with that.

The essence of political realism now is to understand that from the Baltics to Beijing new opportunities to advance freedom arise from the defeat of the coup. And it is just as important to understand that they will be attained more slowly and painfully unless two things happen.

One is that new leadership takes over in the Soviet Union. The other is that new thoughts take over in Washington.

Suddenly the whole world knows how important the opportunities are to so many Soviet people. That was made brilliantly clear by the swift fury with which the coup against change was smashed.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union, basically a jail for captured nationalities, is one of the opportunities. It is shamefully past time for the U.S. to become part of history, instead of an embarrassed bystander, by recognizing the independence of the three Baltic states.

Just about the only important resistance anymore comes from Soviet black berets and U.S. diplomacy.

In a new confederation of former Soviet republics, another goal can come rapidly: the disappearance of communism, gone but never forgotten. Seventy-four years of communism guarantee that the economic turnaround will need help and time.

The end of the centralized Soviet system will be the gift of the Soviet people to themselves. But it will also be pleasant news for those who happen to worry about nuclear war.

The huge Russian republic will eventually control the Soviet stockpile. That is an edgy thought. But it is not quite as nerve-racking as having them all these years under a centralized Soviet empire. The coup terrified us all. Nobody says life after the Kremlin will be perfect and safe -- just better, and safer.

Gorbachev seems to be telling the world himself that this cannot happen under his leadership. He emerged from his captivity to say he still believes that reform could come within the framework of the Communist Party, that he would not abandon it, that those who had left it were wrong, and that socialism, as he put it, was his goal.

In saying that, to a people sick of the stench of the Communist Party and of the socialist economy, and to foreigners who will invest only when they see the death certificates of both, Gorbachev did what the coup-makers could not -- make the president of the Soviet Union look silly.

Important as he has been as a window opener for the Soviet Union, he returned to find his own credentials in question. He is on political trial by his countrymen to explain why he came to appoint those nasty coup-makers in the first place, and why he is appointing more like them.

So Boris Yeltsin will be the leader of the post-Gorbachev, post-Soviet era. Luckily, he was around. Maybe Washington will even remember the lesson -- not to pin American foreign policy on any one person, not Gorbachev, not even Yeltsin.

But what Bush has learned from the coup we do not really know. He stood strong against it but now is annoyed at any criticism of Gorbachev: peculiar politesse certainly not shared by the Soviet people.

Meanwhile Li Lu is still out there on a sidewalk in Washington, starving -- and smiling. He smiles because he knows that the men who sent out the tanks in Moscow are in jail while their brothers in Beijing are not only in power but courted and fawned over by the U.S.

He thinks Americans will find that strange. He thinks maybe Americans will not again turn away if Chinese have to face the tanks again. Maybe Li Lu is right.

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