WASHINGTON — ON any given day, the discussion might range from the finer points of economic reform to particularly good restaurants in the capital city. The participants could be from Japan, the United States, or Argentina. But the place they're all focused on is the Soviet Union. And their ``conversation'' takes place by computer. Sovset - an acronym for the Russian phrase ``Soviet Network'' - is a computer network for specialists on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Glasnost - Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of openness - has opened virtually every facet of Soviet society to new public scrutiny. Paralleling that development, Sovset has emerged as a sort of electronic coffee shop for specialists to peruse the news from the USSR, and swap observations and prognostications about the country's future. And like any good gathering place, Sovset also provides a venue for good-natured ribbing, swapping jokes, and even heated debate.
Starting with only 12 members in 1984, Sovset now has more than 500 in 17 countries. It's a nonprofit partnership of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the University of Arizona's Department of Management Information Sciences. The system is underwritten by grants from Chicago's Prince Charitable Trust.
``We've seen the most spectacular growth in the past two years,'' says Alice Young, the coordinator of CSIS's Soviet Studies program and the system operator of Sovset.
With Sovset, ``all you need is a PC, a modem, some communications software. It's quick. It's easy. That's the beauty of it.''
The main Sovset computer is at the University of Arizona. It's accessible by many people in the US and overseas through the Compuserve, Tymnet, Telenet, and Bitnet data networks, often with a local telephone call. Users simply ``log on'' to the system and follow a series of prompts to enter one of several parts of the Sovset system.
One is ``computer conferencing'' - electronic messages posted so that anyone on the system can read and reply. The messages are divided into 32 categories, ranging from arms control to anekdoty, (anecdotes). There is also a private electronic mail system allowing users to correspond directly with one other.
One of the most widely used services, however, is a data library that contains material from a wide variety of sources, including news reports from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; economic data from PlanEcon Inc., an economics reporting service; and scholarly lectures from the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in Washington.
Users have found a variety of applications. Some send out queries for help in scholarly research; others trade Moscow restaurant reviews. The system has been used in ways both serious and frivolous - to post job openings for Soviet scholars, or to place bets on the outcome of elections to the Soviet Congress of Peoples' Deputies.
Users range from academics at universities to analysts at government intelligence agencies. The hourly access rate is $40, but academics and students get a discounted $25 hourly rate.
Ms. Young will not provide figures on operating costs or subsidies but says the system is now - five years after its inception - ``fairly close'' to breaking even.
Access is available to virtually any serious researcher, Young says. That is, unless you happen to be a Soviet national. Sovset's governing board decided to exclude them, says Young, to encourage franker exchanges among Western scholars.
Brenda Horrigan used Sovset when she worked as an analyst in Washington. Last year, she moved to Denver, from where she continues to log on, download information, and send out electronic mail messages. She says the service helps keep her in touch with the community of Soviet specialists.
``It's been a big plus to me, to keep in touch with people,'' she says, adding, ``I think I would feel very isolated without it.''
Are there shortcomings?
``Probably just the expense,'' she says, adding, ``My monthly bills runs about $100.''
The expense of using the system is also cited as a drawback by Robert Cullen, a former Newsweek correspondent and now publisher of Soviet-American Trade, a newsletter.
He also says the system is unnecessarily complicated.
``In comparison to commercial services like Compuserve, I find it slow and difficult to understand. ... I just found that I was wasting a lot of time.''
Michael Rinzler, a research analyst at New York University's Center for War, Peace, and the News Media, says he uses the data library for perusing information about media coverage of national security issues.
Young says new technology is speeding up the pace of Soviet research. Each day, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich, West Germany, prepares a daily news report, then transmits it by satellite to Washington, where it is ``downloaded'' into Sovset. Young says waiting for the same information to be printed and mailed would take up to two weeks.