Freedom at Fire Sale Prices

FIRST it was Pepsi, then Billy Joel. Now, McDonald's and the corporate practices of Donald Trump have crossed the Iron Curtain. Moscow may resemble the U.S. faster than we expected--except it will look more like Wall Street than Washington.

The struggle for control of the Baltic Republics in the Soviet Union has shown that full-blown greed, competition and vicious take-overs are not the sole province of Drexel Burnham. The secession of the Republic of Lithuania from the Soviet Union promises to be bigger than the break-up of AT&T.; Corporate raiders beware--Soviet President Mikail S. Gorbachev may soon be the new Carl Icahn.

The price tag on Lithuania is now about $34 billion dollars. That's what Gorbachev said that the Republic of Lithuania owes the Soviet Union for investments in factories, roads, nuclear reactors and other improvements introduced by Joseph Stalin and the Red Army Civic Improvement Association.

The Lithuanians countered by handing Gorbachev a bill for more $800 billion dollars--Lithuania's estimate of the economic loss from 40 years of communist stagnation.

Of course, if the case were tried under American tort law, a jury would probably award the Lithuanians an additional $4 trillion for pain and suffering.

WE MIGHT be tempted to think that putting a price tag on freedom is absurd, and that both sides are clouding the issue of popular sovereignty by bickering over dollars. Our condemnation doesn't carry much moral force, however, because the Soviets learned their methods from us. If we cheer the Lithuanians for moving towards democracy, then we will be stuck cheering for Gorbachev for the down-and-dirty business practices he has adopted.

And we would have to cheer loudly because Gorbachev is a very good student. His handling of the situation in Lithuania is reminiscent of Donald Trump's battle with Merv Griffin over casinos in Atlantic City, N.J.

In the casino battle, Trump fought Griffin in a vicious take-over battle for control of the boardwalk. In the end, Griffin won Resorts, which is now almost bankrupt. Trump ended up with a lot of cash, which he used to finish the Taj Maha! casino located conveniently next to Resorts.

Trump made a smart decision when he let Griffin fight him for Resorts. By losing, he ended up winning. That's the "Art of the Deal." In the Soviet Union, the only difference is that the land masses are larger.

IF GORBACHEV still believed in preserving Communism at any cost, he would send the tanks rolling into Lithuania tomorrow. It would shatter his reformist image, but he could do it.

But he probably won't. That sort of response went out with the retreat from Afghanistan and the introduction of Pizza Hut to Bucharest. Gorbachev the born-again capitalist should screw his adversaries and make them think they're getting the better deal. That's what Donald Trump advises.

Letting Lithuania buy its freedom is a good financial move for the Soviet Union. It will pump a lot of money into the nation's moribund economy, in much the same way that the end of the Cold War is supposed to provide the U.S. with a "peace dividend." The "freedom dividend" could be the economic spark Gorbachev needs to put borscht in every pot and Western consumer goods in every shop.

Of course, the Lithuanians may find themselves in a bit of a financial pinch for a while if they have to borrow all that money. But they, too, can take a lesson from the Americans, who stopped caring about puny $34 billion deficits long ago.

Besides, dissidents in the Soviet Union are used to paying for their freedom. A century ago, my grandparents had to buy their way out of Russia. More recently, the only way to emigrate has been to bribe an official for an exit visa.

IN A FEW years, we may get used to countries being bought and sold. Gorbachev could always put Siberia on an international auction block, or sell the Islamic republics in a bidding war between Iran and Afghanistan.

Poland could get its faltering economy back on track by selling the lands east of the Oder and Neisse Rivers to United Germany. Many Germans are openly anxious to get back the territory they lost after World War II. And unlike the Lithuanians, the Germans have lots of hard currency on hand.

When Third-World nations default on their massive foreign debt, we could do what your hometown banker does when you miss too many car payments--repossess the country and sell it in the classifieds.

With sovereignty a thing of the past, the U.S. could always sell large chunks of California to the Japanese in order to solve our balance of payments problem. Oh, wait a minute. We already did that.

When making a buck from human liberty is involved, the possibilities are endless. We might think that Gorbachev is just being cynical for cashing in on huddled masses yearning to breathe free. But long before Gorbachev demanded money for Lithuania's freedom, AT&T; used television images of tearful Berliners to sell long-distance service. Who was the first to see dollar signs in democracy?