Teeing Off in Moscow

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A GOLF course in Moscow. What could be more symbolic of ``restructuring'' taking hold? Western businessmen, in town to look into a joint venture or two, will be able to indulge in their favorite pastime. The course's Swedish developer has even set aside a set of clubs for Mikhail Gorbachev, should he want to take up the game. The links themselves, as a New York Times story made clear, are still a little short of what even a weekend duffer in the West would tolerate: ankle deep mud and patched-together greens.

Metaphorically speaking, though, that's right on par. Perestroika and the multitude of innovations it has unleashed are slogging through the rough on every side. Even as the first Soviet golfers teed up, their patron of sorts, Mr. Gorbachev, was teeing off at local journalists who, in his view, have driven the freedoms of glasnost too far. The Soviet president was particularly angered by an informal poll in Argumenty I Fakty, a tabloid with some 21 million readers, rating the popularity of members of the new parliament. Gorbachev himself scored poorly among some readers for trying to impose his views on the legislators.

This flap over the press is slight trouble compared to the hazards just down the economic fairway - deficits, strikes, etc. In any case, Gorbachev - a novice, if that, at golf, but a master of politics - may have been trying to divert criticism of his policies by hardliners, who've been treated most roughly of all in the press.

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Hearing of the debut of Soviet golf, one couldn't help remembering that only a couple of years ago the Chinese national golf team toured the United States. Journalists wrote giddily of the infiltration of a prime symbol of capitalism into the People's Republic. The image of lithe young Chinese getting off long drives and holing puts seemed to confirm everything we wanted to believe about change under Deng Xiaoping. Golf courses springing up in southern China catered to business visitors and tourists.

The events of last June in Beijing erased, perhaps permanently, the tendency of Westerners to mistake symbol for substance. This week China's leaders launched a purge to cleanse their party of impure elements, prominent among them individuals who've committed the sin of turning a profit with their businesses - and who may even have learned to play golf.

We'd like to think that someday George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev may play a friendly round, but we're not going to hold our breath.

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