VILNIUS, U.S.S.R., JAN. 15 -- A deadly political poker game is being played out on the barricade-strewn streets of this ancient Lithuanian capital -- and the stakes go far beyond the destiny of one small Baltic republic.
The key player in the game is Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet president and winner of the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize. His declared aim is to preserve the integrity of the Soviet state. His high cards are the Soviet army, the pro-Moscow rump of the Lithuanian Communist Party and a sizable portion of the republic's non-indigenous population worried about their future in an independent Lithuania.
Gorbachev has still not completely shown his hand. But there is a widespread sense among both his political supporters and opponents that the game will end with the imposition of direct presidential rule over the republic and the suspension of Lithuania's democratic institutions. Such an outcome would send a very strong signal to the Soviet Union's other restive republics that they had better fall into line.
The political battle became violent early Sunday when Soviet army paratroops stormed the television station and transmitting tower here, leaving 14 people dead and more than 200 injured. Since then, the atmosphere in the Lithuanian capital has become increasingly tense, with a strong feeling that the crisis has not yet peaked.
The way the Lithuanian drama plays out is likely to have major implications for the fate of democracy in the Soviet Union. It also will affect the future of East-West relations. Here is a guide to the political forces Gorbachev is seeking to use to his advantage.
The Soviet army -- According to Lithuanian officials, about 95,000 Soviet soldiers are now stationed on Lithuanian territory. All the evidence suggests that the army is loyal to Gorbachev, who, as president, is their commander in chief. Although Gorbachev says he was not informed about Sunday's military attack here until it was over, he bears full political responsibility for the soldiers acting under his command.
"We take our orders from the Soviet president," said a senior lieutenant interviewed today at North Town, a military base just outside Vilnius. Only hours before the attack on the television tower, Soviet military officers stationed here told journalists that Gorbachev was the only constitutional authority they recognized.
Vitas Tomkus, a Lithuanian legislator who took part in an official Kremlin investigation into the April 1989 killings of unarmed demonstrators in Tbilisi, Georgia, said the order to seize the Vilnius television tower could only have come from Gorbachev or Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov. He said the Tbilisi inquiry showed that no other Kremlin official is authorized to send paratroops into action.
The Communists -- After a split in the Lithuanian Communist Party in late 1989, a rump group of 40,000 Communists remained loyal to Moscow. These people are the principal political force on which Gorbachev is now obliged to rely as he seeks to reimpose his authority on Lithuania. There is evidence of close collaboration between the pro-Soviet Communist Party leadership and the military.
The pro-Moscow Communists are a prickly ally. Many seek revenge against the Lithuanian independence movement Sajudis, which deprived them of power and led the republic to declare independence last March. Because they represent only a tiny minority of population -- less than 5 percent according to the polls -- they can only hope to rule by force. But they are the only political group that Gorbachev can count on to reimpose Kremlin authority.
The pro-Moscow party faction is the guiding force behind the shadowy National Salvation Committee, which announced last Sunday that it was seizing power in Lithuania in the name of "workers and peasants." For practical purposes, there is no distinction between this wing of the party and the committee; all announcements from the committee are channeled through party headquarters.
The chief reason for the split in the Lithuanian Communist Party was a dispute over whether to retain organizational ties with Moscow. The entire justification of the pro-Moscow faction was loyalty to the Kremlin and the code of democratic centralism, under which party members must unquestioningly fulfill decisions made by the leadership. It is therefore reasonable to assume, particularly at a time of crisis, that the local party organization is acting under instructions of Gorbachev.The non-Lithuanian population -- Russians, Poles, Ukrainians and Byelorussians account for roughly 20 percent of the population. Interviews conducted here over the past few days suggest that they are deeply divided. Some support Lithuanian independence, but others bear a genuine sense of grievance over what they see as the "discriminatory policies" of the Lithuanian parliament in favor of native Lithuanians.
Last week, the Lithuanian government made a major tactical error by announcing draconian price rises just as the war of nerves with Moscow was entering its decisive phase. The decision was justified on economic grounds, but it handed the Communist Party a ready-made political issue that it was quick to exploit. Demonstrations by angry non-Lithuanian workers were organized outside parliament and were met by counter-demonstrations by Lithuanians, lending credence to claims by Soviet hard-liners that the republic was in disarray.
The big question now is whether Gorbachev will be able to control the political forces he unleashed around the country. He may believe he can use the army and party loyalists to curb independence movements threatening the integrity of the state, but Soviet and Russian history suggests that it can be very difficult to stop the machinery of repression once it is set in motion.