LITHUANIA'S decision to freeze its declaration of independence resolves a crisis that at one time appeared capable of undoing Mikhail Gorbachev, burying Lithuania, touching off a string of Soviet nationality convulsions and curdling East-West detente. Scenarios of ever-tightening confrontation were pushing possibilities of accommodation to the side. Fortunately, a better way was found. Urged on by the West, Mr. Gorbachev and the elected leadership in Lithuania opened a dialogue. Positions softened. Now the Lithuanians have declared a moratorium on their independence, and the Kremlin has ended its economic boycott. Faces having been saved; negotiations on the terms of Lithuanian independence can begin.
Has a pattern been set for other Soviet nationalities? As goes Lithuania, so likely will go Latvia and Estonia, but they are the only three which already were independent nations on the Soviet Union's watch. Baltic-Kremlin precedents on such central issues as federal or confederal relations, economic arrangements and treatment of minorities (Russians in Lithuania, for instance) will be studied closely across the Soviet land. But Baltic-like independence demands are not likely to come in the same way from Transcaucasian and Central Asian places of different national backgrounds. The three largest republics (Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia), comprising 70 percent of the Soviet population, share a common Slavic bond. The central authorities and the nationalities will be sorting out their affairs for decades -- by talks and political deals, perhaps by shows of force, economic pressure and appeals to an international gallery as in Lithuania, and perhaps also by ethnic bloodshed and state violence, as seen in other Soviet parts.
On the evidence of Lithuania you could not say the disintegration of the Soviet Union has been averted. On the contrary, a ''Who lost Lithuania?'' school, which can be expected to be heard at the Communist party congress now underway, claims disintegration has been encouraged. But things are not so simple. Once the Kremlin eased the central controls that had suppressed ethnic expression for most of the 70-odd Communist years, Soviet peoples were bound to start catching up with the demands of ethnicity that have been the global currency in that time. This is the painful and serious process the country is going through now.