The latest political crisis in the Soviet Union underlines the pitfalls of Mikhail Gorbachev's improvised revolution. This week's session of the country's parliament, the Supreme Soviet, was expected to endorse constitutional amendments that would create a new system of political leadership. Instead, it may have to spend much of its time trying to forge a compromise between Moscow and the Baltic republic of Estonia.
Estonia's defiance of Moscow - its declaration of sovereignty on Nov. 16 and its apparent refusal to back down in the face of strong criticism from Mr. Gorbachev himself - has further escalated what threatens to be one of the most serious challenges to his reform program: the upsurge of nationalism in the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
To some degree, the crisis may have been an accident. The constitutional amendments to which Estonia objects so strongly are intended primarily to reshape the central government. But the confrontation highlights an important problem that is unlikely to go away quickly: the fundamental contradiction between the aims of reformers in Moscow and those of Baltic activists.
Reformers in Moscow want real executive powers that will allow them to push through far- reaching economic and political changes in the shortest time possible. The Baltic republics want to loosen as much as possible the bonds that have tied them to Moscow since their annexation in 1940.
The present crisis demonstrates the limitations of one of Gorbachev's favorite and, until now, most successful tactics: the use of speed and surprise to prevent opponents of change from mobilizing to block innovations. In another effort to reduce opposition to reforms, some of his own supporters say, Gorbachev tends to rely on a small group of people to formulate his proposals. These methods have in the past led to ill-conceived and sometimes contradictory proposals. In the case of the constitutional amendments, they have contributed to a major confrontation.
Another government action probably aggravated the crisis: the limited discussion of the amendments in the news media. Despite the leadership's commitment to glasnost (openness), some key changes have received only superficial analysis in the official media. The current constitutional amendments have proved to be the most glaring example of this approach.
The fundamental aim of Gorbachev's constitutional amendments, Soviet observers say, is to create a mechanism that largely frees him from the shackles of collective leadership. This would give him more leeway to carry out his ambitious economic, political, and social changes. The mechanism Gorbachev has in mind is a presidential system that gives the president strong executive powers.
Independent intellectuals like Andrei Sakharov and historian Yuri Afanasyev are concerned that the proposals give a Soviet leader too much power. They see the amendments as a sign that Gorbachev is taking the path of authoritarian reform - moving the Soviet Union from an absolute monarchy to 18th-century ``enlightened despotism,'' as one intellectual says. The same powers, they warn, could be used by a successor to Gorbachev to reverse reform.
Gorbachev probably has little option other than to hang tough. His reform program is a delicate juggling act. He is constantly trying to manipulate a series of nearly irreconcilable political demands and pressures.
Radicals want reform to go deeper: They want a more profound ideological reassessment of the past. Some have privately already begun to question both the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution of and its leader, Vladimir Lenin. They are also calling for greater democratization. This includes some calls for multicandidate elections for the post of president.
Conservatives are concerned both with the legitimacy of Marxism as the state ideology and with the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union. In recent months a third political pressure has become to make itself felt: popular frustration with the failure of reform so far to produce anything in the way of tangible improvements in the quality of life. (And while Gorbachev struggles with the Baltic, he also faces an upsurge of unrest in the southern republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia, locked in a territorial dispute for most of this year. Unrest in the two republics, which last week resulted in 10 deaths, reportedly continued Monday with further mass demonstrations in Azerbaijan).
The Estonians themselves may have committed a serious tactical error. Their Nov. 16 declaration of sovereignty looks to Moscow suspiciously like an ultimatum.
Gorbachev has in the past reacted badly to ultimatums. Gorbachev may smile a lot, but he has ``iron teeth,'' former President Andrei Gromyko reportedly said in his speech nominating Gorbachev as Communist Party leader in 1985. In diplomatic confrontations with Britain (in September 1985) and the United States (in October 1986) Gorbachev has shown his iron teeth. Gorbachev and fellow reformers apparently feel that any act that is seen to be a back-down under pressure could weaken, perhaps fatally, their position.
Both sides appear to be leaving room for compromise, however.
In his comments on Estonia - made on Nov. 26 but broadcast on television Sunday night - Gorbachev was careful not to denounce the Estonian position out of hand.
And, while reaffirming their support for their republic's stand, the Estonian Popular Front has so far refrained from any calls for mass action that could further escalate tension.