The Other Big Story

THE Persian Gulf war is muting reports of events in the Soviet Union that would normally be screaming Page 1 headlines in the West. Without a war in the Gulf, the elimination last week of all Mikhail Gorbachev's liberal economic, domestic, and political advisers would take our breath away. It's not an exact parallel, but what if President Bush suddenly eliminated his Cabinet?

Major rollbacks in glasnost, perestroika, and democratization are under way. Soviet troops in the Baltics are only the most obvious evidence. Mr. Gorbachev may not have acceded wholly to those in the military and KGB who have criticized him for not taking direct rule in Lithuania and Latvia, but he is now surrounded by them. For the first time, Gorbachev is not in a centrist position - playing liberals and conservatives off each other.

Whether he's encamped with hard-liners by design or has been forced into that spot - or whether he's lost all control - is unclear.

In fact, the future of the Soviet Union has never been less clear - politically, economically, socially. The population is ideologically fractured. Liberal economic ideas are out, officially, but the conservatives have no economic program to replace them. The recent decision to withdraw 50- and 100-ruble notes from circulation cheats ordinary Russians of their savings. What's needed is a program to convert the ruble. Stanislav Shatalin, once Gorbachev's chief economic adviser, says the USSR is headed for ``economic catastrophe.''

What other reforms will be scrapped? Is the promise of private property - always resisted by Gorbachev - next?

The Feb. 11 US-Soviet summit in Moscow looks ever more doubtful. Canceling the summit in protest of the Baltic crackdown has been discussed. It could be delayed because of Mr. Bush's need to give full attention to the Persian Gulf war.

The president should go ahead with the summit if at all possible. Various Baltics-related sanctions are already in the works. But the summit, as a symbol of a ``new world order,'' ought not to be scrapped. With new powers granted the KGB, and new criticisms of US policy in the Gulf, the summit's aim and tone will be sterner. The Baltics must be an issue. But too much is at stake - progress on reducing strategic nuclear arms - for the US to deny Gorbachev his achievements in US-Soviet relations. They are, after all, cards he can still play against hard-liners.

While Gorbachev's rightward shift is alarming, the West should not write him off. It's too early. Besides, he has a Nobel Peace Prize speech to give soon. Will he then tell of justice in the Baltics?

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