Felix Rohatyn's suggestion {op-ed, May 3} that the new European Bank for Reconstruction and Development should play a role in helping to disentangle Lithuania and the Soviet Union is a constructive contribution to debate on the issues, but his aspiration that the necessary "divorce" negotiations could be concluded in as few as two years is almost certainly unrealistic. It brings to mind an interesting episode from American history -- one probably forgotten everywhere but in West Virginia -- that is useful to bear in mind as events unfold in the Baltics.

On June 20, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, West Virginia was separated from Virginia and admitted into the Union. As a condition of admission, the new state agreed to assume "an equitable proportion" of Virginia's public debt as of Jan. 1, 1861 and to pay it off within 34 years. When the deadline passed, it was clear that many loose ends remained. For example, the value of certain bank and railroad securities in Virginia's sinking fund had to be established. Other issues had to do with the interest rate that should be applied for the period since 1861 and matters as obscure as how the two states would share claims for loans made by Virginia to the federal government during the War of 1812.

Finally, in 1906, after repeated attempts at informal resolution, Virginia invoked the "original jurisdiction" of the Supreme Court (which is used, among other things, for resolving interstate boundary disputes), and sued West Virginia to determine once and for all how much the new state owed the old one.

The litigation lasted more than 10 years, with no fewer than nine decisions by the court. It took until 1915 -- more than 50 years after the separation -- to fix West Virginia's net liability at $12,393,929.50, with interest. Then questions of enforcement arose as West Virginia failed to pay up. The court was reluctant to compel payment. In words that could just as well be addressed to the Soviets and Lithuanians of today, Justice Holmes wrote: "This case is one that calls for forbearance upon both sides. Great States have a temper superior to that of private litigants, and it is to be hoped that enough has been decided for patriotism, the fraternity of the Union and mutual consideration to bring it to an end."

Justice Holmes's hope was misplaced. The case dragged on through the second decade of this century, the court eventually being asked to order the members of the West Virginia legislature to levy the taxes needed to pay the judgment. Not until 1919 did the legislature finally arrange for payment, and when it did so, Virginia received only part of the judgment in cash. The balance was paid in West Virginia bonds, which Virginia agreed to accept.

West Virginia's birth is far from a perfect fit with Lithuania's disputed secession from the Soviet Union. But if we focus on the secession process itself, useful lessons can be learned. One is that juridical separation can be effected before all the related issues have been resolved. Another is that even under the umbrella of a common sovereign, those issues can move at a frustratingly slow pace. Indeed, the fact that the financial side of the process is likely to take a long time is all the more reason to expedite the dissolution of political bonds.

The good news is that the Soviet-Lithuanian "divorce"-related issues can be resolved amicably if there is patience and, ultimately, good will. The West Virginia experience also suggests that a neutral forum that enjoys the respect of both parties can play a pivotal role. EUGENE R. FIDELL Washington