Gorbachev Stays the Course

THE Soviet Union is a gigantic hodge-podge of a country. It covers one-sixth of the Earth's surface. More than 100 ethnic groups live in its 15 union republics and numerous autonomous regions. Economic development ranges from industrialized regions to areas where little has changed since 1917. It should come as no surprise that reforming the Soviet Union's politics and economy is as gargantuan a task as was reforming Czarist Russia. The forces holding the nation together are in delicate balance with those that would tear it apart.

Events at this week's Congress of People's Deputies in Moscow have caused some concern that President Gorbachev is giving up on democracy and turning back to a hard-line approach. But there is little evidence this is so.

Gorbachev's immediate challenge is to force a rapidly degenerating distribution system to deliver enough food and other goods to get the country though the winter. But he must also prevent new outbreaks of ethnic violence such as has occurred several times between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

Reform takes time; change must often be consolidated before more changes can be introduced. Gorbachev is a past master at the tactical pause and at keeping his opponents on both left and right off balance. The Russian people have two historic fears: famine and chaos. In appointing a tough new interior minister and bringing the KGB into the battle against ethnic warriors, black marketeers, and recalcitrant local officials who are holding back food supplies, he is trying to reassure the masses that neither specter is at their doors.

Gorbachev's governmental reform program, which would consolidate about 90 ministries into a 15-member cabinet, is being received as a personal grab for power. Yet reformers for years have pointed to the stultifying bureaucracy of the central ministries as an obstacle to economic restructuring.

The Soviet press remains freer than ever. Lively debate rages in Soviet legislatures. Deputies freely criticize the leadership without fear of retribution. Political and economic reform stumble, but continue to move forward. There is no indication that Gorbachev has given up on either.

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