Gorbachev's Timing

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV put his finger in the dike this week by closing off debate on Article 6 of the Soviet constitution, which gives the Communist Party a monopoly on power. The Congress of People's Deputies went along, voting 1,139 to 839 to put off the issue till later. And ``later'' will certainly come. Even as the Soviet president was cutting short opponents like Andrei Sakharov and arguing that a move to dilute the party's power was untimely, the Baltic states were calmly rejecting this part of the Gorbachev line.

Last weekend the Lithuanian Parliament voted to so away with a local version of Article 6. Estonia and Latvia will surely follow that lead. Regional and city council elections in those republics this week showed how far erosion of communist dominance has already gone. National-front organizations took 70 percent of the council seats.

Many of the people taking those seats are party members as well as nationalists. Many of the Lithuanian legislators were communists voting away their own political monopoly. And many of the 839 people's deputies choosing to buck Mr. Gorbachev belong to the Communist Party. Clearly, the old dictate against factions has vanished. Competing viewpoints, the precursors of competing parties, are springing forth. Gorbachev doesn't have enough fingers to stop this leakage of communist orthodoxy.

Complicating things, his political dike work is porous on the left and the right. The recent Central Committee plenum showed that conservative pressures haven't abated. Exponents of old-line Soviet thinking, led by Yegor Ligachev, inveighed against Gorbachev's flirtations with the West. Some asserted that any policy that draws as much favor in Washington as Gorbachev's has to be suspect. His tolerance for Baltic independent-mindedness was excoriated. Gorbachev offered to resign - a suggestion that had the desired sobering effect. But how many times can that tactic be used?

Everything the Soviet leader does - from his congenial summit with Bush to his efforts to keep the deputies focused on his program - is aimed at giving perestroika time to work. If the economic package put together by Gorbachev's aides can be approved by the Congress, an important start may be made. It is said to include convertibility for the ruble, selling unprofitable state-owned industry, and development of a stock market.

Gorbachev's forte has been timing. He has a firm sense of history, and of his role in it. But history is hard to orchestrate - especially now that the players are multiplying. Timing may need hour-by-hour revision.

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