RECENT developments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe seem to indicate that the dilemma communist reformers now face is almost unsolvable. To improve economic performance at home they have to experiment with democratization. Yet, the vacuum created by retreating communist ideology is being quickly filled by virulent nationalism. This development must be as surprising to Mikhail Gorbachev as it is widespread.
Shortly after elections to the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies which confirmed the high standing of popular front movements in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the Kremlin was confronted by an even harsher challenge in the republic of Georgia. Seeing a tiny minority of ethnic Abkhazians among them demanding an independent republic, thousands of Soviet Georgians rose to seek their own independence from Moscow.
Meanwhile, other communist countries seem in a hurry to follow the Soviet example - this time voluntarily. Recent clashes between security forces and ethnic Albanians in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo are comparable to the violence in Georgia or last year's battles in the Soviet region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
During a visit to East Berlin last December, Polish Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski admitted that relations between Poland and East Germany had had difficulties. Subsequent border incidents in the Bay of Pomerania confirmed this. Another heated debate pits Budapest against Bucharest over the plight of Romania's Hungarian minority.
Still other problems are gradually coming to the fore. Resurgent nationalism in Czechoslovakia, for instance. A prominent Czech dissident, Milan Hubl, warned that recent removal of many minority Slovaks from the federal government has created a situation similar to that existing before 1968. Resentful Slovaks then fought back, triggering the so-called Prague Spring.
Will Mr. Gorbachev and his reformist colleagues in Eastern Europe master nationalistic passions, or be trampled by them?
Marxism-Leninism is of no use to reformers this time. At least in theory, nationalism in communist countries should be a matter of the distant past. The capitalist world, by contrast, was supposed to be gradually consumed by nationalistic wars for shrinking markets. But not only is the communist world haunted by ever-growing internal strife, national barriers are coming down in Western Europe.
But Gorbachev has repeatedly proved he is most effective when following his own instincts, rather than communist ideology. He has shaped his relations with nationalists in the USSR and Eastern Europe with bold moves that have enabled him to prevail without undue political costs.
The reasoning behind Gorbachev's policy is simple: that by playing nationalist and other opposition forces at home and in the Soviet bloc against each other, he can achieve much better results than his predecessors did by relentless oppression.
It seems a very risky strategy, indeed - as Gorbachev has learned. The Supreme Soviet recently passed, obviously at his prodding, new laws against those who challenge central authority or make ``public appeals for undermining and overthrowing the Soviet state and its social system.'' Yet even with his problems, Gorbachev seems likely to maintain his hold on power.
First of all, the resurgence of nationalism is a product of Marxism-Leninism as applied by past regimes, not of present reforms. The Kremlin spent enormous amounts of money and energy teaching people to believe in a predetermined course of history. A near-breakdown of communism has revealed the uselessness of the whole enterprise. Deeply disappointed, many people became cynical; others looked to the church or nationalism.
As a shrewd politician, Gorbachev quickly recognized not only the dangers but also the opportunities in this new development. He knows, for example, that while years of intellectual oppression kept the opposition firmly united against the Soviet regime, new freedoms would likely divide it. Instead of crushing all nationalists with the help of new laws, Gorbachev is likely to redouble efforts to divide and isolate them by surprising political moves.
Unfortunately for Gorbachev, the state of flux that makes possible his inventive maneuvering against nationalists and other opposition forces also makes it difficult to govern constructively. Not unlike the opposition, communist reformers have been unable to devise a functioning program of action to unite the faithful.
But those who predict Gorbachev's early demise at the hands of nationalists underestimate his instinct for the shrewd Machiavellian maneuver. If Gorbachev eventually fails, it will likely not be because nationalists or other politicians have outsmarted him, but because he was fighting for a lost cause.