THE Afghanistan settlement provides new evidence that around the world Moscow is choosing to cut some of its losses. In Afghanistan, and in countries under less direct control such as Cambodia and Nicaragua, the Kremlin seems increasingly willing to accept a less ambitious, less costly policy than in the past; it is one of broader compromise as an alternative to the total support Moscow used to provide to its allies. Moscow will be hard pressed to continue that more costly course. The Soviet economy deteriorated sharply last year. While official Soviet statistics claim economic growth of 2.3 percent, recently released United States intelligence reports to Congress put that figure at only 0.5 percent. The signal is one of troubles for Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms at home and require less expensive policies abroad.
The pragmatism forced on the Kremlin is likely to have a strong impact on Eastern Europe. The logic driving Soviet policy there seems somewhat similar: The more difficult the situation becomes in any Warsaw Pact state, short of an open anti-Soviet uprising, the more pressed Moscow will be to compensate for its lagging direct support by tolerating greater diversity in regional developments.
But such a state of affairs is unlikely to encourage the Poles or other East Europeans to work harder or accept more sacrifices. The opposite is true. To counter this, Mr. Gorbachev is making every effort to persuade his allies that he is eager to offer them more independence anyway - as a result of his ``new thinking.''
This innovative approach initially produced some inflated expectations and illusions in Eastern Europe. Yet Gorbachev's bold attempt to reinvigorate communist societies seems stalled. He has failed thus far to achieve his main goal: changing the people's attitude toward work and the communist system.
Too many East Europeans simply distrust long-term Soviet intentions and the advertised new greater flexibility of their governments. They regard the officially offered freedoms as minuscule compared with the sacrifices demanded. The reforms being attempted, therefore, still lag well behind the accelerating economic crisis and cannot prevent further deterioration. Recent strikes in Poland illustrate this point well.
Avoiding open revolt in Eastern Europe and introducing workable changes there will require many more democratic freedoms and much more independence from Moscow than is now the case. Communist leaders can be expected to relax the controls only gradually; their goal will be to do just enough to prevent the worst. The outline of gradual reforms adopted in Czechoslovakia, to be introduced into the whole economy only in 1991, is a case in point. The outline indicates, for example, that the role of the center has to be not only preserved, but strengthened; it also calls for radical limitations of interference into enterprise activity.
The outline promises that each enterprise will set up its economic plan independently; yet each plan must respect the norms, tasks, and limits set by the government. The outline stipulates that the director of a managing board is fully responsible for management of the enterprise, but insists that socialist self-management guarantees participation of the work collective in decisionmaking; such a socialist self-management system must be set up under the guidance of the relevant organization of the Communist Party.
Such reforms could be bent either way as they are carried out. They could be stalled by a resentful party apparatus or government bureaucracy. They are also too complicated to allow for ``considerable'' reduction of the state administration offices, as is predicted.
The less effective such partial reforms are found to be by Soviet and East European Communists, the more they will try to induce the US and the West to establish closer economic relations with the East, while broadly advertising their somewhat greater domestic tolerance.
This communist policy poses new but hardly insurmountable challenges to the US and the West. If the West remains unresponsive, its influence in Eastern Europe will sharply decline. Yet the more economic help the West provides to the most flexible East European countries, the more such aid will alleviate pressures now pushing them in the right direction.
An effective policy suggests itself: While the US and its allies should actively search for new opportunities to broaden their relations with Eastern Europe, they must make any concessions directly dependent on concrete reforms in the relevant countries and further loosening of the Soviet grip on them. State Department spokesman Charles Redman followed this line the other day in condemning the use of force in Polish strikes and in stating that economic help to that country would be feasible ``only if the difficult economic changes needed are supported by a broad spectrum of Polish society.''
Soviet and East European hard-liners will undoubtedly resist such linkage. Yet reformers would welcome it. They would be helped by it to impose necessary but unpopular economic measures. Growing receptiveness in Poland and Hungary - the largest debtors in the region - to the International Monetary Fund's conditions for providing new economic help to them points in this direction.
The economic situation and prospects for greater political freedoms in Eastern Europe are now more intimately linked than ever before. The inner logic between them should guide US policy.
Milan Svec is senior consultant at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, the National Defense University in Washington.