NEW YORK (AP) _ Ground-breaking reforms in Soviet Lithuania are fueling cautious hope among Lithuanian emigres, but also stirring discord over the prospect that some degree of independence may be on the horizon.

''We are all a little bit shocked'' by the changes, said Algis Klimaitis, a Lithuanian dissident who lives in France and works with the Baltic World Council. He said some people are too quick to accept the Soviet reforms, ''and some people are too skeptical. We must find a middle way.''

The debate over tactics has heated up in the last two weeks following an inaugural conference in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius of the officially sanctioned Movement for Restructuring, which takes its name from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's plan of economic and social reform.

About 20,000 people gathered for the Oct. 22-23 conference, where more than 1,000 delegates, including many Communist Party members, adopted resolutions demanding sweeping reforms for Lithuania, already one of the most progressive of the 15 Soviet republics.

Emigres who participated in the conference said that within a few days, the Lithuanian party began to reduce food and medical privileges enjoyed by its elite members.

And last week, the newly installed party chief, Algirdas Brazauskas, announced plans to free several prominent political prisoners.

Vytautas Bieliauskas, president of the Lithuanian World Community and one of a few U.S. citizens allowed to attend the conference, said ''enthusiasm is quite high'' in Lithuania.

''People were sitting at the television - it was transmitting everything from the conference - and people were crying,'' he said after returning home to Cincinnati, Ohio.

Bieliauskas, whose organization says it represents a quarter of the world's 1 million expatriate Lithuanians, received a visa to attend the conference. But many other emigre activists were refused permits.

Some claim that by this move, Soviet authorities were trying to drive a wedge into the Lithuanian emigre community.

''They (the people of Lithuania) are after independence, but the Soviets only want the economic advantage of free enterprise. People expect more freedom than they'll get,'' said Ancietas Simiutis, Lithuania's consul general-in-exile in the United States.

The Soviet Union absorbed the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in 1940 under a secret pact with Nazi Germany. Nationalists denounced the pact, and several countries, including the United States, continue to recognize Baltic diplomats who maintain offices in the West.

Simiutis is one of many nationalists who are skeptical of Gorbachev's campaign to reform the Soviet system and permit more openness about controversial issues.

''We think (Bieliauskas) is doing a good job, but (he) might be a bit naive because he expects more than the Soviets will give,'' Simiutis said. He said the Soviets need Bieliauskas to help legitimize their ''occupation'' and called his admission to the conference a ''Soviet trick.''

Bieliauskas responded that the Lithuanian organization's executive committee voted 8-1 in favor of him attending the conference.

''(Lithuania) is occupied by the Soviet Union, but it doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I deal with people, not with the government,'' Bieliauskas said.

Bieliauskas said independence could be possible for Lithuania.

''But people are not ready. The process has just started. ... I believe in the process, but it will take time,'' he said.

Klimaitis of the Baltic World Council said the older generation wants ''only the reconstruction of the Baltics of the 1918-1940 period (when they were independent). But it looks like there are other possibilities ... more creative ideas for a new state,'' he said, speaking by telephone from Strasbourg, France.

Klimaitis envisioned the republics in a loose confederation with the central government in Moscow that would have control only over military and some foreign affairs.

''I think this will be possible,'' Klimaitis said, because Gorbachev realizes the region could become the Soviet Union's ''big duty-free shop.''

Soviet Politburo member Alexander N. Yakovlev last week appeared to rule out independence for the Baltic republics by saying in a published interview that Moscow wouldn't let the Baltic states conduct their own foreign affairs or print their own currency.

But Bieliauskas maintains his hope for independence, pointing to a younger generation of activists in Lithuania.

Klimaitis called the youth's participation the most encouraging sign he saw.

''They have had some days of real freedom, and they will never forget that.''