THE Moscow political analyst, speaking privately here in Lithuania's capital, shook his head slowly and clenched his fists together as if in handcuffs. ``Now, because of the United States' invasion of Panama, the Kremlin's hands are untied,'' he declared grimly, bursting his hands apart.
No one seriously expects Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to unleash the military on this rebellious Baltic republic following the local Communist Party's ``declaration of independence'' last week from central control. Still, jokes about tanks carried enough of an edge that it was clear some Lithuanians were a bit apprehensive.
In addition, the dramas of Panama and Romania have grabbed the world spotlight away from Lithuania's act of defiance. Some here say this may deprive them - and in particular, their popular party chief Algirdas Brazauskas - of the protection of world opinion.
In a sharp warning over the weekend, Mr. Gorbachev said that secession of a republic from the Soviet Union would ``sow discord, bloodshed, and death.''
At an emergency plenum of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee, announced the day after the Lithuanian Communist Party's (LCP) unprecedented move, Gorbachev seemed to have few options for responding to the Lithuanians beyond verbal reprimands. The Kremlin could throw its support behind the 15 percent of the LCP congress delegates who have decided to remain loyal to Moscow and break away from the main LCP.
But, judging by the strength of nationalist feeling among the Lithuanians - who make up 80 percent of the population (the highest percentage of natives among the three Baltic republics of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania) - such a gesture would be futile.
Lithuania may feel reprisals in another way. Starting Jan. 1, a new law granting all three Baltic states ``economic self-sufficiency'' goes into effect. Other parts of the Soviet Union see this as unfair special treatment; sabotage against deliveries of natural resources to the Baltics is possible.
But as for the military, Gorbachev may have other uses in mind. Over the weekend, he promised aid to the popular forces that ousted Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. State television in the capital of Bucharest reported that the offer included military support.
Although Romania is technically a Soviet ally, Mr. Ceausescu's maverick style was long a thorn in the side of Kremlin leaders. On Friday, the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies adopted a resolution offering its ``decisive support for the just deeds of the Romanian people.''
On the Panama invasion, some liberal Soviet analysts worried that the good feeling from the Malta summit had been soured and that hard-liners would use the US action to hurt Gorbachev's case for warmer East-West relations.