Lithuanians in a U-Turn

October 28, 1992

As the first republic to declare independence, Lithuania played such a pivotal role in the break-up of the Soviet Union that a popular rebuke of its nationalist leadership has to be scrutinized for bellwether significance. If Lithuanians after two years of independence are fed up with economic chaos and political witch hunts, are voters in other former Soviet republics also ready to give the technocrats of the old order another chance?

The voters' rebuke of President Vytautus Landsbergis and his Sajudis party, the amorphous nationalistic movement which has been in power since 1990, was the culmination of increasing turbulence during the past several months.

A major crisis of confidence led to the collapse of the cabinet in mid-July. Since then, the small Baltic country along the Polish border has been ruled by a caretaker government. Lithuania's parliament has been witnessing a bitter duel between Sajudis and the so-called New Majority of anti-Landsbergis factions led by the Democratic Labor Party, successor to the now-banned Communist Party. Vicious charges about political leaders' collaboration either with the KGB or Nazis have been hurled back and forth. At one time in the summer, the work of parliament was deadlocked for weeks because the Landsbergis supporters boycotted its sessions.

As bickering paralyzed the political leadership, living conditions and the economy grew worse. Winter is approaching, but Lithuania has neither adequate fuel reserves nor workable plans to keep factories working or residences warm.

In many other former Soviet republics, voters confront the bleak alternatives of discredited reformers or equally discredited communists. In Lithuania, they felt the Democratic Labor Party alliance led by Algirdas Brazauskas offered a realistic choice. The 60-year-old former communist leader has widespread credibility as an independent-minded politician, who is both conciliatory and pragmatic. He has good connections in Moscow and might therefore be useful in securing oil, food and raw material deliveries from Russia that would help Lithuania survive the winter.

Because a complicated election system prescribes runoff elections, Lithuania will be a hornets' nest of agitation until a new, permanent government can be created. The country will then immediately plunge into another round of electioneering because a new constitution calls for a directly elected president to be chosen in January. The top contenders are Mr. Brazauskas and incumbent President Landsbergis. The key issue: Who will end the bedlam and make the country work?

It is a question full of profound implications for the huge Russian republic next door.

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