For Gorbachev, '88 is make or break year. Soviet leader must build on successes, fend off growing challenges

For Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, 1987 was a bittersweet year. But 1988 may prove decisive. By this time next year, it should be clear how far Mr. Gorbachev's reforms really can go.

At year's end, the momentum of reform seemed to be slowing. Gorbachev needs to reverse this trend next year without fail.

The past 12 months were marked in foreign policy by a summit and a major arms control treaty. At home, they saw the intensification of pressure for change and resistance to it. For the first six months of the year, supporters of radical reform seemed to have the upper hand. This changed perceptibly in the second part of the year, when senior figures like Yegor Ligachev, the second-ranking Soviet leader, and Viktor Chebrikov, the head of the KGB (the secret police), began to voice reservations about some of the changes taking place.

One event crystallized the turmoil and drama of the struggle for reform: the dismissal in November of Moscow Communist Party chief Boris Yeltsin, one of the most outspoken supporters of radical economic and political reform.

At an Oct. 21 meeting of the full Central Committee (called a plenum), Mr. Yeltsin shocked his listeners by declaring that reform had reached a ``dead end,'' and blamed Mr. Ligachev (and perhaps others) for this. Three weeks later he was dismissed. On Nov. 18, he was appointed first deputy chairman of the State Construction Committee.

The origin of the affair remains a mystery: What induced a veteran party leader like Yeltsin to completely lose control of himself?

It also demonstrated the limits of glasnost (Gorbachev's policy of openness). On at least two occasions, senior Soviet leaders confirmed Yeltsin's resignation at press conferences. On both occasions, the information failed to reach the Soviet people.

The ascendancy of reform in the first part of this year was symbolized by the rise of Alexander Yakovlev, usually viewed as the main ideologist of perestroika (restructuring) and Gorbachev's closest adviser. At the January plenum, Mr. Yakovlev was made a candidate (nonvoting) member of the Politburo. Six months later, at another plenum that marked the high point of support for reform, he was promoted to full membership.

Before Gorbachev came to power in March 1985, Yakovlev was not even a member of the Central Committee. Late in 1987, however, there were reports that Ligachev had taken over at least one of Yakovlev's tasks: preparation of the first plenum of the new year.

The unexpected arrival of Matthias Rust, the West German youth who landed his light aircraft on the edge of Red Square on May 28, was greeted by reformers as a blessing in disguise. Mr. Rust's prank underlined the armed forces' own need to shape up. Defense Minister Sergei Sokolov abruptly resigned after the landing. The new minister, Gen. Dmitri Yazov, was considered someone more in the Gorbachev mold. By the end of the year, however, General Yazov was also voicing concern at some of the side-effects of perestroika and glasnost.

The impression of a slowdown in reform was reinforced on Nov. 2. In a speech marking the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Gorbachev disappointed many supporters of radical reform by his relatively mild assessment of the Stalin years.

In foreign policy, the signature of the agreement on intermediate-range nuclear forces during the Washington summit gave Gorbachev his first tangible policy achievement and a personal public-relations victory.

The big problem remains Afghanistan. There a call for national reconciliation fell short of Soviet hopes, and the year ended instead on a warlike note: a huge Afghan-Soviet offensive to lift the siege of the city of Khost.

For next year, Gorbachev has set himself another major arms control challenge - achieving a 50 percent cut in strategic or long-range missiles. Developments on the domestic front, however, could prove crucial.

On the first day of the new year, 60 percent of Soviet industry will switch to a new profit-oriented system of economic management. The new system will free individual enterprises from the stifling control of central ministries. But one key element in the whole equation will be missing: flexible prices for the goods they produce. Price reform is not due for at least one more year. Some independent Soviet economists fear that 1988 - the first year of real perestroika - may end in negative economic growth.

By mid-year, the extent of resistance in the leadership to reforms should be clear. If resistance is serious, Gorbachev will have to decide whether to move against his opponents or make accommodations with them. The forum where he will have to make those decisions will probably be the party conference planned for June 1988.

Everyone agrees that the conference - the first since 1941 - will be important, but no one seems quite sure what it will do. At the very least, it will assess the progress of reform. Some supporters of radical reform hope, however, that it will act as sort of interim party congress, and will carry out a major renewal of the leadership.

The news media, social issues, and intellectual debates will provide some of the best indicators of the strength of reform.

The media have played a key role so far in establishing an atmosphere of openness and debate. Popular expectations of the media seem to be on the rise: Some of the most outspoken papers and journals are planning large circulation increases next year. Supporters of more-conservative reforms, however, are calling for more discipline and responsibility from journalists.

On the social front, conservatives reformers are expressing increasing concern at two outgrowths - they would say excesses - of perestroika: the development of rock groups and of informal, independent organizations that are concerned with everything from the ecology to historical monuments.

By tolerating both these phenomena, radical reformers feel they can help overcome the popular alienation and distrust that many people, particularly the young, have developed toward politics. Conservatives, on the other hand, view them as threats to the country's traditional moral values.

The debate over Stalinism is likely to prove another important political battleground. The debate will probably be waged through literature, in politics, and in history, where new textbooks are being prepared.

The Kremlin's main foreign policy preoccupation during the first half of the year is likely once again to be arms control.

Moscow wants to move quickly from intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) to 50 percent cuts in strategic weapons. In theory, a strategic arms reduction treaty will be signed during a Reagan-Gorbachev meeting in Moscow in late May or early June.

The Soviets believe that this would boost domestic reforms by reducing defense expenditures and increasing political security. Defense cuts would eventually allow the reallocation of resources to the civilian sector. Greater international stability would defuse any possible objections from inside the party leadership that the situation is too tense to allow major experiments at home.

Both Americans and Soviets are optimistic. The Soviets stress that the comprehensive verification provisions of the INF Treaty will make a strategic arms reduction treaty easier to draft. It is, however, a daunting task: Other treaties have taken years, not months, to draft. Both sides must overcome the issue of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (``star wars'') and the Reagan administration has to persuade Congress to ratify the treaty quickly.

Afghanistan could conceivably cease being a purely foreign policy issue next year. Glasnost is emboldening people to speak out more openly. What they say is highly critical. A solution of the problem would also make life easier for Moscow in the Middle East and remove one of the main obstacles to normalization of relations with the Chinese Communist Party.

But foreign policy achievements will be icing on the cake. The main thing for reformers is to keep the momentum of change going - and avoid a major mistake that would play into the hands of their opponents.

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