The events have an eerie aura of deja vu. In 1956, when the West was distracted by the Suez crisis, the Soviet Union marched on Budapest to put down a reformist Hungarian government. Now, when the world is preoccupied with a possible war in the Persian Gulf, tens of thousands of elite Soviet paratroopers are fanning out to the country's seven most rebellious republics. Their stated assignment is to round up military draft evaders. But their mission seems more a matter of intimidating independence-minded political leaders from Estonia to Armenia.
If bloody clashes break out, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika will be dealt a staggering blow, jeopardizing nearly six years of efforts to open the Soviet Union to the West and attract billions of dollars in Western aid and trade credits.
WESTERN SUPPORT. So far, the U. S. and German governments, both of which are strong supporters of Gorbachev, don't expect that to happen. A Bonn official says Germany won't react to Gorbachev's use of paratroops to track down draft dodgers. It wouldn't tolerate a military crackdown on would-be secessionists, but the official doesn't expect Moscow to go that far. "Gorbachev is still in power, and he doesn't favor the use of force," the official says. "He is tied to his promise to renegotiate with the republics and bring forward democracy."
Similarly, the Bush Administration, which has just approved $900 million in farm credits to the Soviets, seems unwilling to go beyond public condemnations of the Soviet military action. That may in part reflect fear of losing Soviet support for U. S. intervention in the Persian Gulf. But if there are violent conflicts or mass arrests in the Soviet Union, the Bush-Gorbachev summit scheduled for Feb. 11 would likely be postponed.
Gorbachev's move follows two months of increasingly tough actions aimed at placating the Soviet right wing. He replaced a moderate national police chief with hardliners from the KGB and army. And at diplomatic sessions, sources say, military men have been shoving aside moderates from the Foreign Ministry--whose top official, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, resigned in December, warning of a coming dictatorship.
In Latvia and Estonia, secessionists fear that Gorbachev is seeking to impose emergency presidential rule and quash their bids for independence entirely. Says Alexei Grigoriev, editor of Riga's radical Baltic Times newspaper: "This is all part of a long-term strategy to destabilize the situation and end the popular-front government."
VIOLENT RIOT. Probably not by coincidence, when the paratroops arrived in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius on Jan. 8, a violent demonstration outside the parliament building forced the breakaway republic's government to resign.
That crisis showed how fragile the republics' capacity and will for political and economic reform still is. Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene and her Cabinet resigned because the Lithuanian parliament refused to accept a package of price hikes and subsidy cuts. Ironically, Prunskiene had followed a more moderate policy toward independence than Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis. But she came under fire for not creating a big enough social safety net to cushion the shock of reforms.
In Lithuania and other Soviet republics, tensions are likely to keep rising as troops go door-to-door seeking out draft evaders. "Gorbachev," says Kestutis Girnius, a Soviet expert at Radio Free Europe in Munich, "is wise enough not to risk all-out condemnation by the West and doesn't need a bloody crackdown to undercut the authority of the government." But with such a massive military sweep under way in the republics, the chances for a miscalculation are great.