WILL perestroika be brushed aside by a new style of Soviet authoritarianism? Intellectuals close to Mikhail Gorbachev have reportedly been discussing the idea. Some conservatives would welcome it. Many supporters of radical reform fear it.
``An authoritarian scenario cannot be ruled out,'' says Igor Klyamkin, a prominent political observer. ``No regime has ever switched from totalitarianism to democracy in a single jump.''
The fear of, or yearning for, a crackdown seems to spring from a single source: the belief shared on all parts of the spectrum that the old political system is disappearing fast, that economic decline is causing a dangerous level of popular discontent, and that the leadership appears unable to solve the political or economic crises. A breakthrough or a breakdown, many Soviet observers say, has to come quite soon.
There are at least three scenarios under discussion. All are usually pitched in a two- to three-year time frame.
The first is that Mr. Gorbachev himself will introduce authoritarian measures in the hope of keeping the center together while political reform stabilizes, and economic reforms start to bite. Some who regularly advise the Soviet leader are reported to have been discussing the idea, in some cases favorably. And despite criticism from both ends of the reform spectrum, Gorbachev has concentrated the most important positions in Soviet politics, that of party chief and president of the Congress of People's Deputies, in his own hands.
Some commentators suggest that he go further. The country's most influential intellectual journal, Novy Mir, recently published an article in which a liberal political scientist, Andranik Migranyan, proposed creating ``strong authoritarian power'' which also oversee the creation of durable democratic institutions. And in an article published earlier this year, Fyodor Burlatsky, whose ideas on political reform have sometimes prefigured Gorbachev's later decisions, suggested forming a presidential Cabinet whose members would include the first vice president, ministers of Foreign Affairs, Defense, and the Interior, and the head of the KGB.
Events could push Gorbachev toward authoritarian rule, says Mr. Klyamkin. ``But I think he's more likely to be an Allende, someone who loses power because of his unwillingness to use authoritarian methods.''
The second scenario might best be called post-communist authoritarianism. Klyamkin feels this is the most likely of the authoritarian hypotheses. If economic reforms begin to bite, perhaps over the next two to three years, new political forces will emerge in Soviet society, he says.
On one side will be those benefiting from the changes: a new class of managers and technocrats, the cooperative sector, and skilled workers. On the other will be unskilled workers still not deriving any benefit from economic changes. (Already in 1987 Soviet sociologists warned that the latter category included about 50 million manual workers). Under such conditions, social unrest could grow, and new privileged classes would urge authoritarian restrictions.
The third scenario is a crackdown by conservative forces - similar to the 1981 declaration of martial law in Poland. This would be most likely, observers say, if the political and economic situation deteriorated into uncontrollable strikes and widespread unrest. Many observers feel it is the least likely of the three scenarios. Some conservatives seem to be tending toward it.
``Gorbachev is full of air,'' said a leading conservative intellectual this week. ``Everything is collapsing and he is doing nothing about it. This country has already suffered one civil war, based on ideological conflict. Now we're faced with a second war, based this time on nationalist conflict. We need someone who is decisive - (Yegor) Ligachev or (Boris) Yeltsin.''
The two men - the former a conservative reformer and member of the Communist Party Politburo, the latter a maverick populist leader - detest each other. Both, however, are popularly viewed as men of action.
Radical-minded reformers view the iron fist as the worst scenario. It would probably not solve the country's economic or political problems. Instead, as in Poland, it would allow the crises to deepen.
Some Soviet observers doubt that the military would intervene. They argue that the armed forces are beset by the same social and ethnic stresses that are gripping the rest of the country. Other observers counter that, if hard-line political leaders could convince military commanders that their viewpoint was the legitimate one, the armed forces would go along with a crackdown.
``Our troops are imbued with the spirit of unquestioning obedience,'' says a civilian who served for over a decade as an officer in the KGB border troops. ``If they were told to blow up the General Staff they would.''
The former officer recalled one key example of the troops' obedience: when secret police chief Lavrenti Beria tried unsuccessfully in 1953 to seize power after the death of Josef Stalin. ``It's no secret that the military units troops were prepared to obey Beria. It was just a couple of individual generals who arrested him.''
The twin nightmare of military intervention and political disintegration have made their way into popular fiction. One story published last June, ``The Man Who Didn't Return,'' has become a cult classic, and may have deepened the pessimism prevailing among many Soviet intellectuals. The story depicts a bleak post-perestroika Russia: The old Soviet Union has disintegrated. Moscow is half destroyed, and the only elements of the present to have survived are elements of the political rhetoric and a KGB-type organization.