MIKHAIL GORBACHEV has problems on every front. There's rival Boris Yeltsin and his clamorous popularity. Striking miners from Siberia to the Ukraine want Mr. Gorbachev to resign. Restless republics want autonomy (including the crucial Ukraine, violence-prone Soviet Georgia, and the implacable Baltics). The Soviet economy is in trouble. Various republics are withholding tax moneys from the Kremlin. And last week, the authority of the Communist Party - which Mr. Gorbachev has persistently clung to - declined further when 100,000 pro-Yeltsin demonstrators marched peacefully in Moscow, defying a command not to protest.
What last week's protest shows is that the idea of freedom and democracy has a value and a momentum all its own. The centralized socialism that Gorbachev now appeals to is like Confederate money - you can offer it all you like, but it doesn't buy much. Some 50,000 Soviet troops were unable to create enough fear to stop Moscow's protesters. The crowd treated them as if they didn't exist - swirling around the barricades and water cannon.
"Stop the Insanity," was the pro-reform headline in the official newspaper Isvestia, showing that a few air pockets of glasnost remain.
The sentiment for democracy in Moscow and among the far-flung coal miners is reassuring. The hard-liners haven't gained total sway, even in the face of instability. But if the party has got to go, something must replace it. What?
If Gorbachev resigns, who replaces him? Can Boris Yelstin, who has amassed political capital by pressing anti-Gorbachev themes, make good on the new "500 day" liberal economic plan he is touting? Can he grapple with the military and the KGB?
Gorbachev must rediscover a liberal approach. He must show the republics that the Kremlin can do business with them. He must settle for less empire.
Among the opposition, an anti-Gorbachev, anti-Union posture isn't by itself enough. The Soviet leader, after all, isn't Nicolae Ceausescu - at least not yet.
Democracy has to be nurtured - but not a democratic zeal without knowledge that could merely reinforce nationalism and chaos.
The West should cautiously broker with both sides - the republics and the Union. Gorbachev has been lamenting his current pariah status in the West. Efforts to reschedule the US-Soviet summit will help (if snafus on the conventional forces arms agreement can be ironed out). It needn't be one-or-the-other with Gorbachev and Yeltsin.