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For Gorbachev, '88 is make or break year. Soviet leader must build on successes, fend off growing challenges

By Paul Quinn-JudgeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 31, 1987


For Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, 1987 was a bittersweet year. But 1988 may prove decisive. By this time next year, it should be clear how far Mr. Gorbachev's reforms really can go.

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At year's end, the momentum of reform seemed to be slowing. Gorbachev needs to reverse this trend next year without fail.

The past 12 months were marked in foreign policy by a summit and a major arms control treaty. At home, they saw the intensification of pressure for change and resistance to it. For the first six months of the year, supporters of radical reform seemed to have the upper hand. This changed perceptibly in the second part of the year, when senior figures like Yegor Ligachev, the second-ranking Soviet leader, and Viktor Chebrikov, the head of the KGB (the secret police), began to voice reservations about some of the changes taking place.

One event crystallized the turmoil and drama of the struggle for reform: the dismissal in November of Moscow Communist Party chief Boris Yeltsin, one of the most outspoken supporters of radical economic and political reform.

At an Oct. 21 meeting of the full Central Committee (called a plenum), Mr. Yeltsin shocked his listeners by declaring that reform had reached a ``dead end,'' and blamed Mr. Ligachev (and perhaps others) for this. Three weeks later he was dismissed. On Nov. 18, he was appointed first deputy chairman of the State Construction Committee.

The origin of the affair remains a mystery: What induced a veteran party leader like Yeltsin to completely lose control of himself?

It also demonstrated the limits of glasnost (Gorbachev's policy of openness). On at least two occasions, senior Soviet leaders confirmed Yeltsin's resignation at press conferences. On both occasions, the information failed to reach the Soviet people.

The ascendancy of reform in the first part of this year was symbolized by the rise of Alexander Yakovlev, usually viewed as the main ideologist of perestroika (restructuring) and Gorbachev's closest adviser. At the January plenum, Mr. Yakovlev was made a candidate (nonvoting) member of the Politburo. Six months later, at another plenum that marked the high point of support for reform, he was promoted to full membership.

Before Gorbachev came to power in March 1985, Yakovlev was not even a member of the Central Committee. Late in 1987, however, there were reports that Ligachev had taken over at least one of Yakovlev's tasks: preparation of the first plenum of the new year.

The unexpected arrival of Matthias Rust, the West German youth who landed his light aircraft on the edge of Red Square on May 28, was greeted by reformers as a blessing in disguise. Mr. Rust's prank underlined the armed forces' own need to shape up. Defense Minister Sergei Sokolov abruptly resigned after the landing. The new minister, Gen. Dmitri Yazov, was considered someone more in the Gorbachev mold. By the end of the year, however, General Yazov was also voicing concern at some of the side-effects of perestroika and glasnost.

The impression of a slowdown in reform was reinforced on Nov. 2. In a speech marking the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Gorbachev disappointed many supporters of radical reform by his relatively mild assessment of the Stalin years.

In foreign policy, the signature of the agreement on intermediate-range nuclear forces during the Washington summit gave Gorbachev his first tangible policy achievement and a personal public-relations victory.

The big problem remains Afghanistan. There a call for national reconciliation fell short of Soviet hopes, and the year ended instead on a warlike note: a huge Afghan-Soviet offensive to lift the siege of the city of Khost.

For next year, Gorbachev has set himself another major arms control challenge - achieving a 50 percent cut in strategic or long-range missiles. Developments on the domestic front, however, could prove crucial.