Soviet military: a big voice that is speaking softly ... for now. Under Soviet reform, the military faces unprecedented press criticism and pending budget cuts, on top of apparent defeat in Afghanistan. A restless military could pose challenges for Gorbachev.

In the worldwide chorus of comment about today's exciting events in the Soviet Union one important voice has been strangely, almost thunderingly, silent: the Soviet military. This silence is all the more amazing considering the successive changes that have confronted the Soviet Army since the Gorbachev revolution began:

A cutback in its nuclear arsenal, negotiated at the summit.

A little noted temporary pullback of Soviet submarines from the US Atlantic coastline to their Arctic bases.

A troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, widely regarded as a defeat in the field.

A plan, according to Soviet military sources, to withdraw all 65,000 troops from Hungary, possibly as a step toward unilateral reductions elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

A proposal to withdraw aircraft from Eastern Europe if NATO had desisted from putting F-16s in Italy.

A proposal to cut naval forces in the Mediterranean.

Reports that Gorbachev plans to cut back military manpower by a million.

Permitting foreigners to inspect secret weapons sites, talk of additional deep cuts in strategic arms, overtures for a summit meeting in Peking (which imply reductions of Soviet forces on the Chinese border as well), and other seemingly dovish moves fill the air.

Within the Soviet Union, such measures and proposals have been accompanied by media criticism of the once-sacrosanct military, prompting Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov to complain that public respect for the military is being undermined.

Top generals are less in evidence at official functions. It is estimated that fully two-thirds of officers in key Army posts have been removed and replaced since Gorbachev's arrival. In the defense industries, there is already, according to Literaturnaya Gazeta, a fear of looming unemployment.

Moreover, the new doctrine of ``reasonable sufficiency'' in defense points toward further cuts in Soviet Army resources, prestige, and power. This has led at least one officer, Ivan Tretyak, commander in chief of air defenses, to express publicly what must be in the mind of many military men. In an article in the weekly Moscow News he lambasted defense cutbacks, charged that the doctrine of reasonableness is not enough to ``assure the final destruction of the enemy,'' and contended, instead, that ``defense of the country should be absolute.''

The main chance

Whether the present cuts are merely tactical maneuvers by a Soviet Union still bent on world conquest, as die-hard cold warriors suggest, or sheer economic necessities, they point to at least a temporary decline in the internal political clout of the military, once regarded as equal in power to the KGB, the bureaucracy, and even the Communist Party itself.

For the officer corps, such power shifts translate directly into personal terms - slower promotions, fewer privileges, less access to consumer goods at special stores, fewer opportunities for corruption, less influence on public decisions.

All this suggests that at least some part of the military and the defense industry must be increasingly unhappy, and some intellectuals have complained that the military is an obstacle to perestroika (restructuring).

Recently the Soviet Army's responses, once muted and circulated mainly in military journals, have become more open. If the disaffection grows, however, the Soviet marshals might easily attract anti-Gorbachev allies.

To those in the outside world who favor Gorbachev's efforts to reform Soviet society, this raises troubling questions.

Many with a long memory recall that when Nikita Khrushchev also tried to reform both the Soviet economy and the military, he triggered a frontal clash between the Army and the Communist Party, and was unceremoniously booted out of office in 1964 by his own subordinates.

Could some member of today's Politburo, secretly dreaming of the ``main chance,'' using the military-industrial complex as a political base, forge a coalition between the Army and civilian opponents of perestroika, and hamstring or even topple Gorbachev?

In that case what happens to the future of global arms limitation and chances for world peace?

Is Gorbachev, one of the towering figures of our century, violating a key rule of the revolutionary power game at great risk to his regime?

That basic rule of power is: Never alienate the military and the masses at the same time.

The China model

``Power,'' said Mao Tse-tung, ``springs from the barrel of a gun.'' In China, Deng Xiaoping, himself a former general, never has forgotten Mao's axiom.

When Mr. Deng came to power, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) was fiercely ideological, counting among its leaders many elderly officers far more loyal to Mao Tse-tung than to Deng. Deng, too, wanted to reduce military costs, cut military manpower, modernize the Army, and clip its political wings.

Deng succeeded not merely in slashing the size of the PLA, demobilizing as many as a million soldiers, but reduced the power of the grizzled regional commanders, many of them veterans of the Long March. Even more significant, he has had at least partial success in shifting control of the armed forces from the Military Commission of the Communist Party to a newly formed Military Commission of the Chinese government. Today, although he has relinquished most other formal positions, Deng remains de facto commander in chief of the PLA.

Deng smoothed the way by offering the retired commanders perks, titles, advisory positions, and the like, ministering to their psychological as well as material needs. In short order and with minimal fuss, Deng was able to neutralize any military threat to his regime and sharply cut back the military budget.

Unlike Gorbachev, however, he was able to protect his political flanks.

Deng's radical agricultural reforms brought almost immediate benefits to China's vast peasantry. His policies quickly put food on the tables, stereo units, cameras, and other consumer goodies in homes, and money in the pockets of millions. Deng, therefore, had immense popular support for his economic policies before he took on the entrenched old guard in the People's Liberation Army.

Gorbachev's problem

Contrast this with events in the Soviet Union.

While Deng began his reform in agriculture, where results can show up in 18 months or two years, Gorbachev, reportedly under pressure from some of his colleagues, put the main emphasis on industrial reform. These take much longer to pay off. In 1987, therefore, Net Material Output, a key Soviet measure of the economy, grew by only 2.3 percent - the worst performance since World War II, except for 1979.

Instead of happy farmers and consumers, Gorbachev faces disgruntled Soviet workers and farmers, who have yet to see the first benefits of perestroika, and a bureaucratic middle class that actively fears his reforms.

Indeed, he is telling them things will get worse before they improve - that they must work harder and take bigger risks. By the year 2000, according to Abel Aganbegyan, Gorbachev's top economic adviser, fully 16 million workers will lose their jobs and need retraining. Worse yet, in 1989 and 1990, Soviet consumers can expect to start paying substantially more for basics like milk, meat, and bread, as government subsidies are cut. Similar price hikes led to violent protests in Poland in May.

And on top of it all, his campaign against alcoholism has made vodka - the national pressure valve, so to speak - harder to buy.

By itself, a muttering military might be no problem for Gorbachev. But linked with a resistant, resentful bureaucracy, against the background of a grumbling and skeptical working class and peasantry, the Red Army could provide the steel tip of a counterreform coalition.

One nasty scenario could see Gorbachev - the Soviet Union's best hope - ousted in a peaceful coup d''etat and replaced by a military-minded hawk.

This is why, even as he struggles with economic reform, shortages of food and consumer goods, a paucity of hard currency, lack of computers and high-technology, poor telecommunications, and the other sine qua non of modern economies, Gorbachev needs to keep one unblinking eye on the barracks.

Now would seem to be a good moment for Gorbachev to sweeten the bitter pill for his military as Deng did. He should consider co-opting his military, as rulers have done for centuries.

This can be done while still reducing world tensions and cutting back on expensive weapons systems.

It can be done by increasing the personal rewards of military service especially at the top, even as the size of the army and its budget both shrink. This means not just money (since there are few consumer goods to buy), but, more important, better family housing, medical care, pensions, vacations, and, in today's freer world, the opportunity to travel abroad.

Gorbachev has already taken steps to make the military a part of perestroika. He has filled many high posts with former defense industry officials. Rotating officers as well through nondefense management posts might help them learn firsthand the difficulties faced by the civilian economy which is the ultimate basis of military power.

And for those officers pushed toward retirement, better pensions, better and bigger dachas and cars, more adviserships and consultancies, more honorary positions, may be just what is needed to sooth the slight.

The record of revolutionary power is quite clear: When the price of bread or rice rises, the state needs its military most.

Ask Deng Xiaoping.

Heidi and Alvin Toffler are best known for writing ``The Third Wave'' and ``Future Shock,'' and have been published in some 30 languages.

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