In a dramatic and historic action, Lithuania has declared itself a sovereign state. It was strangely reminiscent of America's own beginnings as 127 members of Parliament voted unanimously for a declaration of independence.
In other unanimous voice votes, the lawmakers restored the 1938 constitution and scuttled the words "Soviet Socialist" from the name of this Baltic republic of nearly 3.8 million people. They also dropped the old seal that included a Soviet hammer, sickle and star and replaced it with a white knight on a dark shield.Lithuania's proclamation of independence will lead to tough negotiations with Moscow over full secession. It poses the first splintering of the Soviet Union in 68 years since the Soviet Union was created Dec. 30, 1922, five years after the Bolshevik Revolution.
It is the first crack in the union of 15 Soviet republics that contain more than 100 nationalities. Burgeoning demands for autonomy are being heard in many parts of the Soviet Union, fostered by a sense of freedom under Gorbachev's reforms.
Gorbachev called the Lithuanian action "alarming" and said he would ask the Soviet government for its opinion. However, he has said that he would not use force against Lithuania but has indicated Moscow will make heavy economic demands as the price of secession.
The United States has never recognized the forcible 1940 annexation of the three Soviet republics - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. President Bush is urging the Kremlin to "respect the will of the citizens of Lithuania," although he has not yet granted full diplomatic recognition.
After all, the three republics were independent between the world wars, and then Stalin absorbed them under a secret agreement with Germany on the eve of the Nazi attack on Poland that started World War II. The Baltic states were overrun by Hitler's Nazi troops and subject to terror and death camps and terrorized again by Stalin's secret policy after the Red Army recaptured the lands.
More than 1 million people perished in the small Baltic states during World War II. In proportion to their size, no other countries suffered as heavily in the war.
Considering this tragic and frustrating history, it is entirely appropriate that Lithuania should obtain its independence.
Yegor Ligachev, considered one of the more conservative members of the Soviet Politburo, told reporters that political means rather than force will be used to deal with the problem. That is an encouraging sign.
Although it is a difficult challenge for Gorbachev, Lithuania's departure - even if the other Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia should follow - would not by itself be fatal to the basic structure of the Soviet Union.
But there is no doubt that secession of the Baltic states could create a precedent that would encourage other Soviet states to demand the same right. Therein lies the danger for Gorbachev and the Soviet Union.
Clearly, the Kremlin may be tempted to prevent any exodus by Lithuania in order to keep others from trying the same thing. Yet resorting to force also has its awful consequences.
The will of the people in Lithuania is being manifest as the world's rush toward freedom continues unabated. Hopefully, rational minds will ensure both Lithuania's independence and Gorbachev's continuing reforms.