MOSCOW, JAN. 13 (SUNDAY) -- Just hours before the escalation of Soviet army assaults in Lithuania this morning against buildings held by the republic's maverick government and its supporters, Soviet Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev's cabinet declared that the confrontation must be solved by peaceful "political methods."
The meeting Saturday afternoon of Gorbachev and his Federation Council, which includes leaders of the 15 Soviet republics, had appeared to give the Lithuanians some confidence that the tensions might ease. The cabinet voted to send a delegation, including Armenian leader Levon Ter-Petrossian, a former political prisoner, to Vilnius to investigate clashes Friday between the army and pro-independence forces.
The contrast between Saturday's cabinet declaration and today's military assaults in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital -- which have left at least 11 dead, according to parliamentary officials there -- illustrates the confusion of power in the Soviet Union.
The Federation Council, led by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, is clearly pressing Gorbachev to find a peaceful compromise with the three Baltic republics -- Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia -- which declared independence last year. The military, the KGB security police and conservative elements in the Communist Party favor a full-scale crackdown on the rebellious republics.
Just three weeks ago Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, in an emotional resignation speech, warned that a dictatorship was on the rise in the Soviet Union. He said in an interview with Moscow News that army violence against the people would discredit the Soviet Union and hinder relations with the West.
The Baltic crisis has struck Gorbachev while he is in the midst of trying to form a new government. Another member of the Federation Council, Ukrainian leader Leonid Kravchuk, said Gorbachev made clear in Saturday's meeting that he would soon nominate Finance Minister Valentin Pavlov to replace Nikolai Ryzhkov as prime minister.
However, the independent news agency Interfax said Gorbachev also had suggested three others to take Ryzhkov's post, according to the Reuter news agency. The three were First Deputy Prime Minister Yury Maslyukov, who heads the state planning commission Gosplan; Oleg Baklanov, the Communist Party secretary for the defense industry; and Vladimir Shcherbakov, head of the state committee on labor, the equivalent of a ministry of employment.
Interfax, shut down Friday by Soviet authorities, resumed operations Saturday using facilities provided by the Moscow municipal and Russian republican governments.
Pavlov, like Ryzhkov, favors a conservative approach to economic reform. Ryzhkov, who suffered a heart attack last month, was criticized widely when he steered Gorbachev away from a radical 500-day program aimed at transforming the Soviet Union's failing centralized economy to a free-market system.
Leaders of many Soviet republics strongly supported such radical reform in the hope that they would be given greater control over their own trade and finances. But Gorbachev, largely at Ryzhkov's urging, advocated and won passage of a program that retained many of Moscow's traditional economic controls.
Under a restructuring of the Soviet government adopted last month by the Soviet legislature, the prime minister will still be a member of the president's inner circle but will have far less executive power than in previous cabinets.
Kravchuk said the council did not discuss a replacement for Shevardnadze, who has stayed at his post pending appointment of a successor.
Before the Federation Council's meeting, Yeltsin and the other leaders of the Russian republic's parliament issued a statement condemning Gorbachev's use of soldiers in the Baltic states as "impermissible." They demanded that Gorbachev withdraw the reinforcements sent to the region last week, guarantee that no force would be used and begin immediate negotiations with the Baltics.
The Russians' statement said the use of troops "can cause the escalation of violence in this or that region and unleash full-scale civil conflict." The statement also said that under a new Russian law, the Soviet army could not use Russian conscripts outside the republic.
Yeltsin delivered the protest statement to Gorbachev at the meeting of the Federation Council. Since his election as Russian president, Yeltsin has formed close links with the leaders of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, signing economic cooperation treaties with them and making common cause to call on Moscow to give up its control of the economy.
In Estonia, officials said they have received reports the Soviet army is preparing to send 2,000 troops to the republic today despite assurances from Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov four days ago that there would be no such maneuvers. Estonian President Arnold Ruutel said the republic's parliament would do all "it could to maintain calm and avoid any clashes."
Latvia's parliament on Saturday accused the Kremlin of a "military terror" campaign in Lithuania.
In Washington, the Senate interrupted its debate on the Persian Gulf crisis Saturday to pass a measure calling on Gorbachev not to use force in Lithuania, staff writer John E. Yang reported.
Yeltsin met Saturday with U.S. Ambassador Jack Matlock, at the ambassador's request, to discuss the situation in the Baltic states. The United States has warned that the use of force in the region could damage superpower relations.
The United States has never formally recognized the annexation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union in 1940, but President Bush did not recognize Lithuania as an independent state when the republic declared its independence last March.