NOT long ago the halls of Congress resonated with applause for Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel's call for Western help to Mikhail Gorbachev. Today, the situation is different. Many consider it equally prudent to demand Western toughness toward Gorbachev, given his resistance to Lithuania's quest for speedy independence. In fact, either of these alternatives could lead the United States in the wrong direction. Such carrot-and-stick approaches to Gorbachev made perfect sense in the past. It would be much less effective now, since the problems Gorbachev faces are in many ways sharply different from those he had to tackle before.
There is no doubt, for example, that consistent US support for human rights, self-determination of nations, and verifiable arms control played a major role in Gorbachev's decision to reduce the Soviet military arsenal as well as abrogate the Stalinist system in the USSR and the Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. Yet all this could also be explained as being in line with the Soviet leader's main goal: modernization of the Soviet Union.
Now Gorbachev has to deal with much more complicated and controversial issues. A positive resolution of one problem would often mean the exacerbation of another one. Such is, above all, the nature of the two main tasks he faces - economic reform and separatist movements.
In order to revitalize the country economically, he has to introduce realistic prices and cut subsidies to unprofitable enterprises. But that would provoke unrest among the population, 85 percent of whom spend most of their money on food alone.
It would also anger even republics that have been relatively quiet until now because they would lose the main reason for staying within the USSR - cheap raw materials and other subsidies. On the other hand, if Gorbachev allowed rebellious republics to walk out of the Soviet Union, it would further cut into his dwindling political support at home and create substantial dislocations in certain areas of the Soviet economy. His ability to impose unpopular belt-tightening and speedily restructure the economy would be critically weakened.
Newly published statistics for the first quarter of 1990 put additional pressure on Gorbachev since, as Pravda put it, during this period a ``destructive process in the economy gathered momentum.'' Gross national product fell by 1 percent, produced national income by 2 percent, and social labor productivity by 2.2 percent. Meanwhile, chaos in the supply of food to the population provoked sharp increases of market prices: 16 percent higher for meat, 20 percent higher for fruit. Soviet exports continue to decline.
Gorbachev's acute sense for a timely political maneuver is becoming less and less adequate in these conditions. The command system is no longer working, but the new system, based on the use of economic levers, has not yet become a reality.
The situation in the political sphere is similar. The Communist Party has already given up a great deal of its control over the economy and other spheres of life. Yet the new organs of state power, the Soviets, are still getting onto their feet and have not fully mastered their tasks. Since this transitional state exists in practically all spheres of public activity, the KGB and the military might be the only mechanisms that can still operate effectively in most of the country. The more need Gorbachev has for them, however, the greater share of power they will claim.
Under the pressure of these and other problems, Gorbachev found it politically expedient to talk anew about his firm allegiance to Marxism-Leninism. He told young Komsomol leaders that ``the real Lenin is astonishingly modern.... Our objective is the revolutionary renewal of socialism, not repudiation of the choice by Lenin, the Bolsheviks, and the people in October 1917.'' He has also ruled out the shock treatment of the economy on the Polish model, or speedy introduction of realistic prices. Nonetheless, he made it clear to senior military officers and veterans in Moscow recently that his policy of ``new thinking'' is irreversible.
The Soviet leader does not have much room for the breathtaking, surprising moves that used to be the trademark of his policy. This indirectly suggests certain new limits of US policy toward the Kremlin.
By applying forceful pressure on Gorbachev in one direction, the US would become identified with any adverse consequences this might create in other areas. As a whole, US policy toward Moscow cannot be much more rational than the range of contradictory options the Kremlin faces.