THE next few months are likely to bring even greater challenges for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet leader hasn't turned a corner in his efforts to improve his country's economy; in fact, there are no corners even in sight. The food situation may grow worse, the economy is likely to weaken, and ethnic disturbances may well grow.
That's the composite view of a number of US analysts who are closely following developments in the USSR, as Gorbachev struggles to deal with an ongoing coal miner's strike and ethnic turmoil in the southern USSR.
The Bush administration is taking pains not to appear critical of Gorbachev or express doubts about his performance in office. But a number of officials, who would not allow their names to be used, say the months ahead could be some of the most difficult that Gorbachev has yet faced. While some Kremlin-watchers are impressed with his canniness and political deftness, they have nagging worries that he is handling problems on an ad-hoc basis, reacting to crises rather than following any particular political or economic strategy.
``I don't think anybody knows how to get from A to B,'' says one analyst, referring to the Soviet power structure.
Experts are quick to stress that Gorbachev deserves praise for his daring and risk-taking. One analyst says he is ``astounded almost daily'' by how far Gorbachev is willing to push the limits of glasnost, or openness.
Another says, ``At least Gorbachev has started'' a reform process, even if there is no clear strategy in sight. That alone, he stresses, is far preferable to the stagnation that marked the years before he came to power.
But a number of analysts say Gorbachev has yet to come to grips with two key problems that threaten his economic and political reforms: inflation and nationalism.
Some analysts say the problems are related; economic discontent is leading to social tension, and social tension is leading to separatist sentiments in some areas and ethnic violence in others.
There is fairly wide agreement among Washington Kremlin-watchers that economic imbalances will persist in the USSR until Gorbachev musters support for dramatic reforms of the government's cumbersome price-setting regulations.
Reduced to their simplest form, Gorbachev's chief economic problems sound remarkably similar to those faced by many a United States politician.
The Soviet budget is out of balance. To finance the deficit, Moscow has printed more money. With more money in circulation, but prices held artificially low by government edict, some shortages have occurred. And inflation - traditionally an ailment of Western economies - has also lowered the purchasing power of other segments of the population.
Dr. Murray Feshbach, a Georgetown University demographer, says annual inflation estimates in the USSR have ranged from the official figure of 2.3 percent to unofficial estimates as high as 8 percent.
The combination of falling purchasing power and shortages has only added to the discontent of the labor force. The lack of even basic consumer goods - soap, meat, and shoes - has been specifically cited by striking coal miners as one of the chief reasons for walking off their jobs. Worse, government wage concessions, which have already been agreed to, will only worsen inflation.
Some analysts say the strikes, while disruptive, are not threatening to Gorbachev. ``Political reform can be destablizing,'' says one analyst. ``You can expect these things to happen so long as the reforms go forward.''
In fact, some analysts suggest that Gorbachev's efforts to turn the turmoil to his own ends - citing the frustrations of laborers as evidence that the economy needs more restructuring - could work.
So far, Gorbachev has followed precisely that tack. In a television interview at the weekend, he said that Soviet miners have ``good reasons'' for ``taking matters into their own hands.''
Whether such a strategy will work, says one analyst, depends far less on the state of the economy than on Gorbachev's ``standing within the leadership.''
``The paramount obstacle [to economic reform] is top-level political resistance,'' concludes Swedish economist Anders Aslund in a new book, ``Gorbachev's Struggle for Economic Reform.'' After exhaustively analyzing Gorbachev's reform efforts, Mr. Aslund concludes, ``Most studies of the Soviet economy treat politics as extraneous, but one outstanding problem has been that there has not been a reforming majority in the Soviet leadership....''
Even more worrying, in the view of some analysts, is that Gorbachev similarly seems to lack a clear plan for dealing with nationalism and ethnic violence. In Soviet Georgia and neighboring Abkhazia, at least 20 people have died in the past two weeks because of ethnic unrest. Mobs have seized hundreds of weapons, and Sukhumi, a major Black Sea port, has been paralyzed.
Yet, according to some US analysts, Soviet authorities seem to lack a clear plan for restoring order or even containing the turmoil.
Some analysts note that Gorbachev has not adequately differentiated between those ethnic groups - notably in the Baltic states - that are eager for more self-determination in order to pursue new economic opportunities, and those that are merely settling ethnic grudges.
Some analysts say they worry that ethnic turmoil that ends in a major loss of life could stop Gorbachev's reform program in its tracks.
August promises to be a particularly trying month. Major nationalist demonstrations are planned in the Baltic republics, Moldavia, and Soviet Georgia.