SOVIET leader Mikhail Gorbachev made every effort to persuade the recent 27th Communist Party Congress that he has the ability to provide the party and the country with firm leadership -- and the needed political sensitivity. He seems to possess both these qualities but had displayed them probably in the reverse order. Despite his critical rhetoric and obvious success in adding again a number of presumably more pragmatic leaders into posi-tions of power, he went through the party congress as a cautious politician. He called for ``radical reforms,'' but was at the same time not willing to put his relatively newly acquired authority to the utmost test by being too specific or reformist.
The Party Congress gave Mr. Gorbachev immense opportunity to broaden support for his innovative program. A great number of people with vested interests in the ``old ways'' and even a greater number of those who are still captives of the previous ``all is good'' propaganda to which they have been exposed for years, are not necessarily an easy target for sweeping reform calls. After all, even Mr. Gorbachev admitted that ``an attitude has become widespread in which any change in the economic mechanism is seen to entail a virtual departure from socialist principles.''
Was the reform message of Mr. Gorbachev, and that of other top leaders, strong enough to win completely to their side those who are still hesitant?
The delegates at the Congress and the Soviet public learned from their leader anew, for example, that ``in the 1970s difficulties began to mount up in the national economy. Rates of economic growth diminished marked-ly.''
But not unlike his predecessors at such occasions, Mr. Gorbachev balanced bad news with good news when he pointed out that, ``whereas before . . . the economic level of the United States was difficult to match, in the 1970s we came substantially closer to it'' and had even ``exceeded it in the production of some of the most important types of output.''
Notice: the same 1970s. At another place he listed impressive successes that have been achieved in some regions by, as he said, ``one's own powers'' -- and one could add, completely within the existing conditions. It would not be surprising, therefore, if skeptics would ask: ``Why should we be so nervous then and `radically reform' the system?'' After all, by Mr. Gorbachev's own account -- the class enemy, ``capitalism,'' faces at the same time ``so many social and other impasses as it has never known before in all the centuries of development.''
And yet, the explanation for Mr. Gorbachev's drive is simple: he and his advisers, as well as Soviet scientists and other informed people, feel the intensive heat of the scientific and technological revolution in the industrially developed capitalist countries, including its implications for national security. They are aware that the present economic development in the USSR does not compare favorably with what is happening in the West. Neither do they feel comfortable about the economic modernization drive now under way in China. Without such openness at the Party Congress itself, however, some of Mr. Gorba-chev's and Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov's appeals hang in the air, despite their repeatedly expressed urgency to put science and technology to better use.
The ``solutions'' to existing problems proposed by Mr. Gorbachev suggest that many needed answers are not available yet, while some others are probably not entirely risk free. The recently adopted general program for the modernization of machine building in the USSR is, for example, supposed to save eventually the labor of ``around 12 million people.'' But a new problem may arise because, as Mr. Gorbachev stated, ``there is no workforce shortage'' in the USSR. One could use other examples from the Soviet leader's speech to illustrate that point.
It would have been shortsighted to expect Mr. Gorbachev and his leadership to introduce a ready package of radical reforms going beyond the present Soviet model. It is more prudent and safer for them to try to make the utmost use of the existing system, including a need for proper belt tightening. The wider the reforms they would gradually suggest, the more proof they will have to provide that the limits of existing structures have been reached.
Despite his instincts and inclinations to break radically with the past, Mr. Gorbachev -- not to mention the more cautious Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov -- seems to have eventually opted for a more gradual approach toward reform. It is good for him and his colleagues to be ahead of others, but they are even more aware of the possible grave dangers they might face, if they found themselves -- however good their intentions -- isolated within the Soviet political leadership.
What can be expected from Mr. Gorbachev's foreign policy? Does the transfer back to Moscow of veteran Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin suggest a new course in Soviet foreign policy?
It seems unlikely. Foreign Minister Eduard Shevar-nadze, unlike Dobrynin, is in charge of foreign policy and is a close friend of Gorbachev's. And even if Gorbachev suddenly decided to use him in the capacity of a ``Na-tional Security Adviser,'' Mr. Dobrynin is so close to the top people in the Foreign Ministry -- some of whom are his former subordinates -- that it is unlikely he will pursue a different course from them.
Milan Svec is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.