FOR Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, this weekend's shipboard get-together with President Bush will likely be a welcome respite from troubles at home. United States-Soviet relations continue to warm up, as Moscow demonstrates its willingness to allow its European allies to choose their own paths of reform and even to drop communism as a guiding ideology. From a distance, both leaders have hastened to assure each other that they will do nothing to jeopardize European stability.
Mr. Gorbachev certainly can't be pleased with the crumbling of the Soviet empire. And suspicions remain that, despite the almost monolithic outward calm Soviet officials have displayed over East European events, conservatives in the party, the Army, and the KGB secret police may use it against Gorbachev in any effort to oust him. But the situation is at least not a cause for strain in US-Soviet relations.
On arms control, the other issue that analysts here see as a top item on the unofficial agenda, negotiations on nuclear and conventional forces are on track for agreements next year.
``Take strategic weapons,'' says Vladimir Chernyshev, a military commentator for the official news agency Tass. ``There is little left to overcome there. In this case, political decisions are needed, compromises on both sides.''
No one here discounts the possibility that Gorbachev could spring a major arms-control proposal on Bush, as he did to President Reagan in their nonsummit summit in Reykjavik in 1986. Yet in typical pre-summit fashion, officials in both capitals have been trying to lower expectations for the offshore superpower t^ete-`a-t^ete.
On the home front, however, the depth and variety of the problems Gorbachev faces are enormous: Radical economic reform is stuck at the starting gate. Conservative opposition to perestroika (restructuring) is greater than previously thought, Gorbachev's closest adviser, Alexander Yakovlev, said on television this week. Communist officials in Leningrad are openly taking the Kremlin to task for what they see as a loss of party authority.
In the republics, troubles abound. A new nationalist clash has sprung up in Georgia between the Georgian majority and the Ossetian minority. Since the weekend, Interior Ministry troops have surrounded the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali to keep Georgian demonstrators at bay.
In the western Ukrainian city of Lvov last Sunday, more than 100,000 Ukrainian Catholics poured onto the streets to urge the legalization of their church. The Ukrainian nationalist movement, Rukh, worked closely with church officials to stage the event.
On Tuesday, the Soviet parliament restored most of Azerbaijan's powers over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, angering Armenians who warned of more regional violence.
And in Lithuania, the local Communist Party is preparing for its congress on Dec. 19, at which it will consider whether to break from the central Communist Party. In an unprecedented move earlier this month, the entire Lithuanian party leadership was summoned to Moscow for an 8 1/2-hour meeting with Gorbachev and the rest of the Politburo. The Lithuanians were not persuaded to postpone their congress.
The urgency Gorbachev feels in all these matters was evident in his extraordinary page-one treatise, called ``The Socialist Idea and Revolutionary Perestroika,'' published Sunday in Pravda.
The article, which covered 2 1/2 pages of the Communist Party daily, was notably defensive in tone as it attempted to rally support for the Communist Party and reaffirm the essential correctness of Lenin's October Revolution. The piece, which was a collaborative effort by Gorbachev and his top advisers, addressed the persistent criticism that perestroika lacks a specific program by citing the example of Lenin, who, the article said, responded to events on the ground rather than imposing a preconceived plan.
``It has never been and cannot be a case of dreaming up some attractive form of society and then trying to adapt life to it,'' the article said. ``The future does not depend on daydreams, but grows directly from the present contradictions and tendencies of development.''
Socialism per se remained a sound philosophy, he said, and should not be confused with the ``deformed'' version that developed under Stalin and Brezhnev. What is needed today, the article insisted, is more humanity and more attention to the individual.
Within a one-party system, which remains essential to concentrating all of society's ``healthy forces,'' he wrote, ``the party must be capable of developing pluralism and competing ideas in society, the broadening of glasnost (openness) in the interests of democracy and the people.''
Local elections are planned around the country over the next several months - beginning Dec. 10, with votes in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Tadzhikistan - and the Kremlin is clearly concerned that the local Communists may be embarrassed. In another attempt to rally the masses to their cause and dispel the notion that perestroika is a ``revolution from above,'' top Kremlin officials will meet with workers, peasants, and technical engineers from around the country in the second half of January to discuss the progress of perestroika.
Will this weekend's superpower summit help boost Gorbachev's standing inside the country? Alexander Bovin, political commentator for Izvestia, didn't think so. ``It may have a slightly positive impact,'' he said, ``More likely it will be neutral.''