VILNIUS, U.S.S.R., JAN. 22 -- Baltic leaders reacted cautiously tonight to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's first conciliatory gesture to their republics since the start of a military crackdown earlier this month that left at least 13 dead in Lithuania and five in Latvia.

Latvian President Anatolijs Gorbunovs said after a 2 1/2-hour meeting today with Gorbachev that he felt more optimistic about a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Describing his discussions with the Soviet leader as "constructive and friendly," Gorbunovs said: "We are going to work together so that the situation in Latvia can be normalized."

Gorbunovs said he did not expect Gorbachev to institute direct Kremlin rule in Latvia unless there is an escalation of bloodshed there. At the same time, Gorbunovs said he had agreed to hold some kind of consultative referendum in his republic on the restoration of Latvia's pre-World War II independence.

The Latvian parliament had rejected Kremlin calls for an independence referendum, saying that Latvians were not asked their opinion in 1940, when their country was forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union under a secret pact with Nazi Germany.

Arnold Ruutel, the Estonian president, said that, he, too, had had constructive talks with Gorbachev, but he warned against too much public optimism. "We have to be cautious," he said. "We have no right to make any mistakes after what happened" in Latvia and Lithuania.

Some Baltic leaders said they sensed that Gorbachev, by expressing sympathy for the first time for the families of the dead and promising an investigation of the troops' actions, was trying to placate the West and the spreading democracy movement in the Soviet Union.

"Gorbachev tonight finally looked like he was frightened by the voice of the people," said Arnaus Zabriunas, a Lithuanian filmmaker and one of the organizers of the independence movement Sajudis. "I think he also heard {Russian leader Boris} Yeltsin's speech Monday -- all of us here listened by radio -- in which Yeltsin said the republics have to unite against totalitarian rule. Maybe Gorbachev is beginning to understand how people feel betrayed and how they have lost trust in him. Gorbachev is beginning to understand that he can't go on like this."

For the majority of Lithuanians, Gorbachev has now become the face of a repressive regime. Although his initial reforms were responsible for helping give rise to groups like Sajudis and the democratic elections here, his conflicts with Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis and the army attack on the television station here last week that killed 13 civilians has destroyed his image as a force for political change. Now, in store windows and on the walls of the Lithuanian parliament, there are posters comparing Gorbachev to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

Lithuanian leaders say they are convinced that Gorbachev has come under tremendous pressure from the military and the KGB secret police to crack down on Baltic separatism and preserve the Soviet empire, but they hope he will recognize that such a crackdown cannot go on indefinitely -- and that even the KGB and the army are not monolithic.

"This is the last attempt of the generals to impose an iron regime," said Virgilijus Cepaitis, a key member of the Lithuanian parliament. "But even if Moscow decides to go all the way with this they cannot win. We have hard evidence that army officers and soldiers in Kaunas and other {Lithuanian} cities refused to attack. I think you would see massive defections and rebellion within the army if this campaign goes much further."

Cepaitis said that a critical factor "standing in the way of a full-scale civil war" was the "bond of common purpose" among the heads of the Soviet republics, under Yeltsin's leadership.

The disillusionment is not limited to Lithuania's native population. In a village 10 miles from Vilnius called Nyementine, ethnic Russians, Poles and Byelorussians live in a world in which the chief concern is usually the high price of meat, or whether the beer truck will come. Soviet television, night after night, has portrayed these people as "terrorized" by the Lithuanian government, "deprived of their rights" by the republic's "unconstitutional" declaration of independence last March 11.

"I'm sorry, but I watch that stuff on television, and I don't know who they are talking about," said Franciszek Czaplowski, an ethnic Pole who has lived all his life in Nyementine. "Sure, there are mixed emotions and anxieties among the Poles, the Russians. But most of the blame for all this violence should be on the shoulders of unelected leaders -- the Communists in Moscow. To say that Landsbergis is robbing us of our rights, like you hear on television, well, that is a plain lie."

Viktor Strach, a Byelorussian resident of the village, said: "I'd like to see presidential rule, but only because everything has turned out to be so confused. We just can't go on with a parliament behind barricades and the army waiting in their garrisons."

It is mainly the leaders of the shadowy, Communist-contrived national salvation committees in the Baltic republics who are demanding an even greater crackdown.

"It is necessary to live through a period of cruel and bloody discord, so that having been soaked in blood, people will understand that on our Euro-Asian continent, the word 'sovereignty' is criminal," Valeri Skurlapov, a leader of the Committee for National Salvation of the U.S.S.R., told the Moscow-based newspaper Independent.

Valeri Ivanov, leader of the pro-Moscow group Yedinstvo here, said he was "confused" by Gorbachev's actions. "Gorbachev must begin to show that he is an authentic, strong president," Ivanov said. "We demand that he dissolve the Baltic parliaments and institute the law of the constitution of the Soviet Union. We demand nothing less."