"If they get the Baltics, they'll come and get us." -- Zviad K. Gamsakhurdia, president of the Georgian parliament

After the events of Bloody Sunday in Vilnius came a torrent of questions: Did he give an order or not? Did he know or not? Was he awake or asleep? And so on and so on. "He," of course, is Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev -- president of the Soviet Union, commander-in-chief of the Soviet armed forces and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

All of the questions asked about him were important but at the same time highly irrelevant. They were irrelevant because surely everybody knows the answer by now even if they don't know the specifics of where, when and what. It was delivered by Gorbachev when he said goodbye to Kazimiera Prunskiene, the former Lithuanian prime minister. "Go back home and restore order," he told her. "Otherwise, I will be obliged to do the job myself." And he did.

Or did he? Bloody Sunday was intended not only as a crackdown on Lithuania. Lithuania itself was intended to be the first domino in a chain of crackdowns on other republics: by punishing Lithuania, Moscow meant to intimidate others.

But instead of intimidation, hope has been born out of the events of Bloody Sunday. There are many reasons for this, the main one, of course, being the courage of the Lithuanians themselves. Another is the outcries of indignation that Bloody Sunday has aroused both within and outside the Soviet Union. And then there is the important factor of Mikhail Gorbachev himself.

The most characteristic feature of Gorbachev's political profile is his indecisiveness. He never finishes his work. It doesn't matter if this work is progressive or reactionary. He started democratizaton, but is reluctant to transform it into democracy. Then he started to roll back democratization but now is reluctant to introduce dictatorship. He is always in between, because he is a transitional figure. That is why it looks as though everybody is fighting against Gorbachev. In fact, everybody is fighting for Gorbachev (including President Bush) and over him. Unfortunately, nowadays, the reactionary party bureaucracy and the military establishment are winning this fight.

Because of his indecision, Gorbachev is grand master of half measures. Partial privatization of land, partial introduction of a market economy, partial convertibility of the ruble, partial freedom of the press, even a partial multiparty system.

But there is one important exception to this indecisiveness: the integrity of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev sees himself as a president of a superpower, no less. Anyone who threatens the unity of the empire is regarded by him as his personal enemy. That's why he is so inflexible, so unreceptive, so impatient, even rude in dealing with the leaders of independence movements. They sense it and reciprocate.

It is not coincidental that Gorbachev's image in the republics was never high. After the crackdown in Tblisi last spring, everything was done to shield Gorbachev's involvement. Yegor Ligachev, who still played by the rules, took all the blame on himself. But they couldn't fool anybody. When Ligachev became expendable, he revealed the truth. During the Gorbachev-Ligachev confrontation, then-foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze joined his president. It was the last time he did so. He knew what was coming; he knew that the republican domino game was just beginning, and he didn't want to be a part of it anymore. He left the bandwagon, which was heading toward dictatorship.

Shevardnadze knew better than anybody else except Defense Minister Marshal Yazov and the CIA how many tanks were left in the Soviet Union. He knew that these tanks were aimed not at Prague, Budapest and Berlin, but at Vilnius, Tblisi and Riga. He knew that new political thinking was for export only and repudiated Brezhnev doctrine for domestic consumption. And he quit.

Now the West is deep in indignation and deliberation about how to help democracy in the Soviet Union. The recipes are old-fashioned and predictable -- economic punishment. But it never worked, and it never will. There is only one real way to give a hand to the republics fighting for their independence: to regard them as such, to recognize them as sovereign states. Only then will Moscow be forced to apply the new political thinking to them and to abandon tanks and the Brezhnev Doctrine.

This was the cornerstone of Russian President Boris Yeltsin's initiative when he, together with the three Baltic republics, sent a letter to the United Nations asking it to hold an immediate conference on the Baltic crises -- that republics must be regarded not as objects of oppression but as subjects of international law and members of the international community.

Accept this idea, and Lithuania will prove to be the first domino in the tumbling of a totalitarian empire, from whose ruins will emerge a new community of independent states.

The writer, a political columnist with Izvestia for the past 40 years, is a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.