Faced with growing criticism from the West, including condemnation by the U.S. Congress, suspension of $1 billion in food aid promised last month by Europe and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev this week tried to allay fears about the military crackdown against Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
Unfortunately, it was not especially reassuring since Soviet actions continue to speak louder than words.Gorbachev was more conciliatory than in recent speeches. He expressed sympathy for families of the victims killed by Soviet soldiers. He said direct presidential rule would not be imposed on the independence-minded Baltic states. He said an "investigation" would be held into the violence. And he promised that his political and economic reforms would continue.
So why the continued uneasiness about what he said? There are several reasons:
- Gorbachev's comments were long overdue. For 10 days, the Soviet president either said he wasn't to blame or defended the military action.
His latest comments may indicate that he is taking first one position, then another while trying to cope with internal pressures inside the Kremlin over independence movements that threaten to tear apart the Soviet Union. The sincerity of his support for any particular view is thus suspect.
- Despite his pledge that the only goal in the Baltics is to restore calm, Soviet soldiers followed the Gorbachev speech by seizing the Lithuanian paper and dye warehouse that provides supplies to the nation's publications. This appears part of a wider drive to muzzle any independent media voice.
- Former members of the Soviet bloc have muted their criticism of Gorbachev in recent days, not because of anything he has done but for fear of what he might do. They are afraid the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Poland, Germany and other places might not proceed as planned if the critics get too strident. In fact, some generals in the Soviet army already are complaining about the withdrawals.
- Who is really in charge? Gorbachev continues to say he didn't order the violence in the Baltics and isn't responsible for it. He may be telling the truth. There are suspicions that Gorbachev may be losing power to a coalition of generals, KGB officials and Communist Party hardliners.
This possibility poses a dilemma for the West. Western democracies cannot stand silent while Gorbachev crushes independence movements. But if they push too hard and Gorbachev topples, he may be replaced by an even more intransigent and repressive regime.
Or what if the Soviet economy collapses and famine breaks out? Can the West simply turn away, even if Soviet reform has stalled or retreated?
Or what happens if the Soviet Union disintegrates into warring ethnic factions, all seceding from the Union? It wouldn't be a civil war of North against South, but one where East, North, West, South, Central, Far West and Near East, are against each other and the Kremlin. And there would be nuclear weapons in the hands of many in this mix.
A power struggle seems to be going on inside the Kremlin. Gorbachev's recent tactics - at odds with the decisions that won him the Nobel Peace Prize - may be an indication that he is not winning.