MIKHAIL GORBACHEV's recent moves have again raised the question of whether he is going to destabilize communism and the Soviet bloc before his reforms produce the results he hopes for. Brutal military power and jamming of foreign broadcasts have always been considered essential for the survival of an undemocratic Soviet system. Yet Mr. Gorbachev seems to be shaking these pillars of its structure.
In an address before the United Nations General Assembly he announced plans to withdraw 5,000 tanks and 50,000 men from Eastern Europe by 1991. This move, combined with Soviet renunciation of an interventionist policy could have a radical impact on both ruling elites and pro-democratic forces in the region. Just a few days before Gorbachev announced this ``Christmas surprise,'' his country stopped jamming all foreign broadcasts, including Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and Radio Israel. The Soviet public will be exposed to a virtually unlimited flow of possibly destabilizing information.
To complicate things further, some of Moscow's allies in Eastern Europe display their own addiction to surprises these days. In an unusual gesture of openness, for example, the Polish government allowed a televised debate between Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and the head of the official All-Poland Trade Union Alliance, Alfred Miodowiz. The influence of Mr. Walesa's democratic ideas on ordinary Poles could be much greater than the government believes.
Aware of potential dangers in Gorbachev's reforms, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, during her recent visit in Washington, even seemed to be appealing to East European people to be prudent in their demands. ``They can get their increasing liberty if they handle it well,'' she said.
Yet belief in Gorbachev's vulnerability, while easy to understand, could harm the West more than the East. It tends to produce extremes in Western political thinking. Those wishing the reformers well are hesitant to press the Soviets for substantial concessions in order not to rock the boat. Those interpreting newly found Soviet flexibility as an act of near-desperation want to confront the Kremlin with ever-increasing demands in the hope that Gorbachev's concessions will finally suffocate communism. Neither of these approaches could be sustained for long without harm to Western interests.
The whole subject deserves reexamination: Are Gorbachev's policies truly so risky as many think?
Careful examination of recent Soviet moves suggests that they may not be. Gorbachev is relying much more on shrewdness than risk-taking. Clearly, he believes that the greater his success in altering the rules of domestic and international politics, the more readily he can attempt moves that would have been dangerous to his predecessors. These moves away from former Soviet positions, far from gradually breaking the system, might open more room for maneuver.
Thus Gorbachev may be fully capable of delivering further concessions at home and abroad as needed - and of experimenting with untraditional methods of governing and diplomacy with greater ease than is commonly realized.
Take, for example, Gorbachev's plans for troop withdrawals from Eastern Europe. They come at a time when Soviet relations with the United States and Western Europe are developing much faster than relations between the West and Eastern Europe. Also, it is a time of much hope about forthcoming negotiations on reducing conventional forces in Europe. Consequently, East Europeans are more likely to give Gorbachev the benefit of the doubt than test the limits of his patience by open rebellion.
The logic of Gorbachev's other concessions to Western demands and public opinion is similar.
For example, people in the Soviet Union now listen less to foreign broadcasts because more information is coming through the official press. Andrei Sakharov noted that the decision to stop jamming foreign broadcasts is likely to get the Kremlin more applause abroad than political discomfort at home.
Soviet reformers sometimes express discomfort over Western pressures to hasten their reform. But that should not be taken at face value. It is true that many Western governments urge communist countries to improve their economic and political performances as a precondition for help or credits. While these pressures are at times resisted by reformers, they also enable the communists to blame the West for unpopular austerity measures.
Doubtless Gorbachev's flexibility at home and abroad is caused by a grave crisis of communism in his country and in Eastern Europe. There are no guarantees that he will solve his problems and avoid disaster in the future.
Yet his shrewd policy has already made many theories and assumptions about developments in the East Bloc obsolete. The point for the West is not how many demands Gorbachev meets or how many unilateral concessions he makes, but how these moves serve Western interests and how they modify communist behavior.
In order to succeed in its relations with Gorbachev, the new US administration must carefully ask the Soviet leader and other communist reformers the right questions and press for concessions that really matter. Otherwise, it might end up rewarding Moscow for supposedly big concessions that did not cost the Kremlin much and won praise for Gorbachev for stealing the stage.