THE dramatic, alarming resignation of the Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, a Kremlin ``soft-liner'' and champion of US-Soviet amity, heralds the beginning of the end of the post-1985 ``perestroika coalition'' within the Kremlin with President Mikhail Gorbachev at its head. This alliance of reformers, of which Mr. Shevardnadze was a linchpin, now is cracking. In his harangue to the Congress of People's Deputies and, in effect, to the world last week, Shevardnadze described as ``reactionary forces'' those in the Kremlin who ``want to advance the country toward dictatorship.'' The minister added that he could not predict ``who or what kind of dictatorship'' was coming, but that he was sure that it would set back the cause of reform.
For his part, Mr. Gorbachev expressed surprise and anger at Shevardnadze's decision which he had not been consulted by his foreign minister. Disingenuously or not, Gorbachev added after Shevardnadze's resignation that he had intended to appoint his longtime colleague vice-president.
The ``forces'' referred to by Shevardnadze are a ``right-wing'' bloc inside the Kremlin that consists of the KGB security police, the military top brass, and the huge military-industrial complex bureaucracy. The latter is headed by Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov, who lately has been belittling liberalization, warning that it harms Soviet defense capability by disrupting the arms industry.
Shevardnadze's departure suggested that Gorbachev could not protect (assuming he wished to) one of his closest allies in the Kremlin. Speaking bluntly in a CNN interview after the minister's resignation, Moscow TV commentator Boris Knotkin asserted that it was ``shocking'' that Gorbachev had been unwilling, or more likely unable, as ``the captain of the ship, to defend one of his own lieutenants, his own soldiers.'' Other Sovietologists see Shevardnadze's demise as writing on the wall for Gorbachev himself.
The Middle East crisis may also have been a factor in Shevardnadze's decision. It has helped propel the gathering of forces that he says intend to set back reform. The foreign minister had been the principal Soviet architect of a US-Soviet consensus on the unacceptability of Iraq's seizure of Kuwait. Under Shevardnadze's guidance, the Soviet Union backed all the UN Security Council resolutions condemning Saddam Hussein's action, including the use of force, if necessary, to dislodge the Iraqis.
Soviet military leaders, however, have said openly their armed forces should not be used if war is employed by the US-led alliance in the Gulf against a Soviet ally, Iraq. Some 100 Soviet military advisers still ply their trade for Saddam.
Furthermore, the military has openly indicated that it would take a distinctly jaundiced view of a US-led war against Iraq raging only some 500 miles south of the Soviets' ``soft underbelly'' in the Caucasus.
Such a war undoubtedly would cause further weakening of Gorbachev's leadership. The automatic majority of Russian-nationalists and ``anti-imperialists'' in the party and state hierarchy would rail against decisions that led to a consummation of events in which US military action became a shooting threat to the Soviet Union's own security interests - to ``its own'' sphere of influence in the Near East and the Persian Gulf, a sphere assiduously cultivated by the military and hard-line Soviet diplomats since the mid-1950s.
President Gorbachev has been yielding to calls from the military and the KGB for a harsher line in domestic affairs. And it appears now those persuasive calls include more isolationism in foreign policy. Accordingly, Moscow insiders speculate that Gorbachev was forced to ``surrender'' Shevardnadze as the symbolic standard-bearer of reform at home and conciliation abroad. Shevardnadze, a ``foreigner'' (a Georgian, not a Russian), thus became the sacrificial lamb to placate the increasingly powerful bloc of the police and military.
With the impending breakup of the reform ``troika'' of Gorbachev, Shevardnadze, and the reputed ``godfather'' of liberalization, Aleksandr Yakovlev - who serves as a key presidential adviser as well as watchdog over the KGB and the army - reform in the USSR appears to be on the skids.