How Gorbachev tackles the tough issues. Soviet leader projects confident, moderate image to mobilize opinion at home and abroad

Mikhail Gorbachev is, it seems, a devotee of guerrilla tactics. Faced with an immovable force at home -- the Communist Party bureaucracy -- he harasses its flanks through press campaigns. Faced with a similar obstacle in foreign policy -- President Reagan and ``star wars'' -- he goes over Mr. Reagan's head and tries to mobilize world opinion.

At home, however, Mr. Gorbachev also has to convince both the Communist Party and the public that his emphasis on negotiations with the United States is not motivated by weakness or appeasement, but by good sense and tactical soundness.

Appeals to world opinion by the Soviet Union are not new. But Soviet officials feel they have more going for them today than they did in the past.

Such officials now concede that until recently Moscow had a very big image problem. The Brezhnev-Andropov-Chernenko-era leadership was routinely portrayed in the West as stagnant and elderly.

Now the Soviets are trying to turn the tables. They feel they have a Kennedy-style figure in Moscow -- and they hope to sell to world opinion an image of Reagan as the US's Leonid Brezhnev.

They have also upgraded their tactics somewhat. Earlier in their careers, both Gorbachev and his present foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, were pioneers in the use of public opinion polls. Gorbachev also pays considerably more attention to his public image than did his predecessors.

The image Moscow wants to create is one of Soviet dynamism, as opposed to US obstinacy.

Soviet officials and the news media here did their best to give Monday's speech a big buildup.

Staffers of the main news agencies stressed to their Western colleagues the importance of the speech. News that the Soviet moratorium on nuclear tests would be extended was leaked several hours in advance of Gorbachev's television appearance.

And yesterday's Pravda, the Communist Party daily, noted the worldwide TV coverage, including by US television networks, of the Soviet leader's announcement.

Despite the hype, Gorbachev's speech on Monday bore a strong resemblance to his TV announcement in March.

The speech included reference to public concern about the unilateral nature of the moratorium, optimism that there were no major obstacles to a test-ban agreement, and emphasis on American ``intransigence.''

This time, though, Gorbachev appeared slightly more eager to stress that his country could -- and if necessary would -- match the US rocket for rocket. (Or, as commentary in Pravda put it earlier this week, the ``defense of peace cannot be equated with vegetarian pacifism.'')

This seems to point to the image of moderation through confidence that Gorbachev wants to project at home. Not surprisingly, Soviet analysts portray the Reagan administration's policy in a very sinister light. At the very least, they say, Washington wants to extract the maximum concessions from Moscow in return for an arms agreement. At the very most, Washington wants to force the Soviets into an economically debilitating arms race that will sabotage both the economic and political revamping that Gorbachev is trying to achieve.

What this line of reasoning seems to boil down to is that the United States sees an inefficient and dogmatic Soviet Union as preferable to an efficient and flexible one.

The second interpretation is the one that Gorbachev loyalists are trying to put over. In Monday's speech, Gorbachev referred to ``forces'' in the United States which want to ``provoke us into slamming the door on negotiations.''

Resuming the arms race, Gorbachev supporters imply, would be to fall into a United States trap.

His domestic reforms, as he himself has made clear, are already being misinterpreted by some party members as a shift away from socialism. Though his hold on power seems secure, he can ill afford to be accused of appeasement toward the US.

There seems little doubt, however, that Gorbachev's commitment to thoroughgoing reform of the country's economy has limited his field of maneuver on arms control.

The cost of reform will be enormous: Between now and 1990, the Soviet government says, it plans to lay out 175 billion rubles ($253.8 billion) in capital investments -- almost 50 percent more than in the preceding five years.

Meanwhile, other government policies are reducing government revenues rather than increasing them. Soviet leaders say the anti-alcohol campaign has cost about $7.3 billion in lost income this year. Preliminary estimates of the cost of the Chernobyl nuclear accident run to nearly $3 billion.

Despite his protestations and warnings to the US, a new round of arms development would undoubtedly drain funds away from economic transformation -- a task that Gorbachev loyalists describe as absolutely vital to the future of their country.

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