Time running out, so now or never? [ zee page head is: Now or never, say Soviet backers of reform ]

SUPPORTERS of radical reform feel that this is the last chance to change the Soviet Union. ``If we don't succeed this time,'' says Vitaly Korotich, the outspoken editor of the weekly Ogonyok, ``it's bye-bye.''

Time is running out, reformers say. The country is dropping further behind the West in technology. The damage done to the society by its leaders since the late 1960s - some say longer - means only the present reform-minded generation of leaders can turn the situation around.

By the time Mikhail Gorbachev was elected Communist Party leader in March 1985, the country was heading rapidly toward economic and social breakdown, reformers believe.

In the early '80s, economist Vasily Selyunin says, he and some colleagues ``concluded that, without sharp changes, the country would be facing a major economic crisis not later than 1995.'' Until Mr. Gorbachev appeared, Mr. Selyunin says, he felt the crisis was inevitable.

BY the time Mikhail Gorbachev was elected Communist Party leader in March 1985, the country was heading rapidly toward economic and social breakdown, reformers believe.

In the early '80s, economist Vasily Selyunin says, he and some colleagues ``concluded that, without sharp changes, the country would be facing a major economic crisis not later than 1995.'' Until Mr. Gorbachev appeared, Mr. Selyunin says, he felt the crisis was inevitable.

The social situation was worse, says Tatyana Zaslavskaya, the country's leading sociologist. ``The main sign that we couldn't keep going the way we were,'' she says, ``was not economic slowdown, or the slowdown in scientific and technological progress - it was ... widespread alienation,'' caused by ``very widespread social injustice.'' People were, she says, essentially opting out of the system.

The grimness of the reformers' diagnosis may explain the risks Gorbachev is taking. Given the sweep of his ambitions, his power base is narrow.

He is engaged in a revolution from above, but he does not have the wholehearted support of the party leadership. And much of Gorbachev's revolution is improvised: He and his supporters are fond of quoting Napoleon - ``On s'engage et puis on voit'' (``Engage the enemy, then see''). This disturbs more-conservative leaders, reformers say. ``They don't like surprises,'' a writer says.

Politburo members like Yegor Ligachev, the second-ranking leader, and Viktor Chebrikov, the chief of the KGB secret police, probably accept the need for change. Mr. Ligachev was something of a maverick during the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev; Mr. Chebrikov was second in command at the KGB to Yuri Andropov, who during a brief period as Soviet leader (November 1982 to February 1984) also showed a desire for reform. But Ligachev, Chebrikov, and others apparently want reform without risk.

Gorbachev's first 33 months in power can be divided into three rough phases:

Phase 1: renewal of leadership. Between March 1985 and January 1987, the leadership appointed 11 full (voting) or candidate (nonvoting) members of the ruling Politburo. There was a complete turnover of the Secretariat, which handles top-level policy between Politburo meetings. Most party Central Committee department heads and about 40 percent of the Central Committee were renewed.

The changes were dramatic, but relatively easy to effect. The Politburo of March 1985 apparently agreed on the need for reform. Differences over its extent and speed had yet to emerge. The appointments were therefore the work of a consensus within the leadership. It is thus difficult to tell how many of the newly appointed officials are supportive or apprehensive of radical reform.

Phase 2: setting the agenda. While the leadership changes were taking place, Gorbachev and his supporters were working out their agenda for change. Selyunin, a sympathetic but blunt-spoken observer of Gorbachev's reforms, calls the leadership's attitude to the country's problems between March 1985 and January 1987 ``technological romanticism.'' Until this year, he says, Gorbachev and his supporters thought they could solve the problems by relatively minor technical adjustments, and without changes in economic management.

The real breakthrough came in June 1987. At a plenary meeting of the Central Committee, Gorbachev obtained the party's backing for fundamental economic renewal.

Phase 3: implementation of reforms. Between the start of 1988 and the end of 1990, Gorbachev plans to put industry on a completely new footing, reform retail and wholesale prices, and halve the bureaucracy. He and his supporters warn that this will be a ``critical'' and ``decisive period'' for reform. Privately one prominent reformer describes the next three years as ``an extraordinarily delicate time.''

If in the first stages of reform he relied on the intellectuals, in the future Gorbachev will need to win over a group whose support for the changes is less certain: the city and regional leadership of the Communist Party.

Political tension has increased sharply with the approach of the next phase of reforms. The country has entered a period of ``strong polarization,'' says the reformer, a Gorbachev supporter.

The most graphic signs so far of growing tension was the outburst by Boris Yeltin during a Central Committee meeting Oct. 21. Mr. Yeltsin, who had been considered one of Gorbachev's closest supporters in the Politburo, claimed that perestroika (restructuring) was at a dead end, and that Ligachev was responsible for this.

After a brutally critical speech by Gorbachev, Yeltsin was dismissed from his post as Moscow city party chief Nov. 11.

The tension is likely to increase. The initial effect of the reforms on the average citizen's life style will probably be negative. Planned abolition of food subsidies is unpopular, officials concede. The reforms will probably be introduced piecemeal, which would intensify the confusion surrounding the changes.

All the situation would need during this period for the reform program to get into very big trouble, the reformer quoted above says, is ``one major mistake or one major provocation'' - a serious strike, demonstrations against price increases, or nationalist disturbances. ``Our leaders are not all as daring as Gorbachev. Their threshold of toleration for public disorder is low. If things go wrong, the pressure on [Gorbachev] to slow down will be very heavy,'' the reformer says.

So far, Gorbachev has proved himself a skillful tactician. He has used glasnost (openness) and his own ability as a communicator to establish a rapport with ordinary people that has not been seen here since Nikita Khrushchev. Although Khrushchev alienated the intelligentsia, Gorbachev has turned it into one his main support bases. His meticulous political destruction of Yeltsin once again shows what Soviet President Andrei Gromyko has called his ``iron teeth.''

The Yeltsin affair does not seem to have weakened Gorbachev's resolve to push through his reforms. It does, however, seem to mark a shift in his position. He is apparently distancing himself somewhat from the proponents of radical change, and trying to reinforce the common ground that still exists with more-conservative leaders.

Men like Ligachev and Chebrikov appear to fit the category of what Fyodor Burlatsky, a pro-reform writer, calls ``traditional'' reformers. They favor tightening of discipline in society and the workplace, and a crackdown on corruption.

Ligachev apparently agrees with more-radical reformers on issues such as Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign, protection of the environment, and the firing of incompetent party officials. He also accepts some degree of de-Stalinization. He apparently views glasnost as a way of enforcing discipline and exposing incompetence. And he plays an active part in economic planning.

Traditionalists, however, seem to be worried that an excessive reassessment of the past, and excessive openness today, could turn into an attack on the legitimacy of the Party, in turn leading to a breakdown of the party's authority.

When the implementation phase of reform starts, Gorbachev will find himself facing another adversary: the country's bureaucracy. The reforms threaten the power, privileges, and even the jobs of millions of middle-level officials.

Until recently, reformers say, the bureaucracy did not take Gorbachev's reform efforts very seriously. As Otto Latsis, deputy editor of the party's theoretical journal Kommunist, remarks, most of the ideas behind the reforms have been under discussion for years. The difference is that Gorbachev wants to put them into practice.

The bureaucracy is already fighting back, says Mr. Korotich. And, he adds, it has shown itself very skillful in ``drowning'' previous reforms.

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