Lithuania Elections Signal Deep Splits over Future Nationalist Leaders Tell Voters That Harsh Living Conditions Are the Result of a Russian Plot, but Many Others Blame the Economic Crisis on Government Incompetence

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LITHUANIAN leader Vytautus Landsbergis sits in his elegant, wood-paneled office in the parliament building, his hands clutched tightly against the cold. Downstairs, members of the parliament he leads wear overcoats as they deliberate in the square chamber.

All of Lithuania is shivering in cold apartments and office buildings as winter's chill sets in. There is no heat, the result of a three-month shut-off of Russian oil and gas supplies. After an agreement in Moscow last week, oil began to flow, but its continuation is far from certain.

Back in this Baltic nation, the energy crisis has generated a different form of heat, the kind that comes from warring politicians hurling charges against each other. With Lithuania headed for its first election since independence next Sunday, competing politicians are eagerly laying blame. For voters, the unbroken cold is merely the latest symptom of their country's downward economic spiral.

The soft-spoken, but fiery nationalist leader Landsbergis and his followers in the Sajudis movement see the familiar hand of Russian interference. They compare the shut-off to the economic blockade imposed by then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev following the March 1990 declaration of independence. They tell voters it is a Russian plot, aimed at aiding the election prospects of the left-wing Democratic Labor Party, the pro-independence wing of the former Communist Party.

"Now we have {the} basis to think the Russian Gorbachevists wish to see the Lithuanian Gorbachevists in power here," Landsbergis says in an interview. While he sees the Russian Army as a more dangerous foe than Russian President Boris Yeltsin, both "want to have as much influence on Lithuania as possible."

Algirdas Brazauskas, the square-jawed, silver-haired leader of the Labor Party, dismisses such anticommunist rhetoric, and blames the crisis on the government's incompetence in handling negotiations with Moscow over the price of energy imports. He explains to a hall packed with workers and their wives from the giant fertilizer plant in the city of Jonova that - given Lithuania's dependence on the Russian economy - they simply have to maintain good relations with the feared and powerful neighbor.

The reformist socialist assails "all those people who said we could ignore this, who said we could deal only with the West. But we are too poor, like church mice, to buy only from the West." Followers defect

Such views are shared by the centrist parties, whose ranks have swelled during the past year with disaffected Sajudis members who accuse Landsbergis of becoming a captive of radicals.

"This tension {with Russia} is artificially maintained," says Sarunas Davainis, one of Lithuania's richest entrepreneurs and a candidate of the right center Liberal Party. The mustachioed businessman echoes an oft-heard view that after the failed Soviet coup last August the government should have focused on economics.

Most observers here discount the idea of a plot by Russia to extort prices above world markets, as Landsbergis has charged. "{Landsbergis's} political thinking tends to be conspiratorial," says one senior Western diplomat here. "But it isn't without some basis. He's got a lot of bruises from the independence struggle."

Indeed the repeated Soviet efforts to block independence with military force clearly press upon Landsbergis. The former music historian has shown fierce determination in his effort to force the withdrawal of the Soviet - now Russian - forces still stationed here. …