FOLLOWING recent shifts to the political right, Mikhail Gorbachev was criticized by his leading contender, the popular Boris Yeltsin, for being a communist first and last. The very terms of the attack show how much has changed in the Soviet Union. But Gorbachev's significant new moves - overtures to the KGB, the army, hardliners, and shakeups in the Soviet police that install disciplinarians at the top - are as much a result of the deeply ingrained Russian instinct for authority, as a return to Soviet communist methods.
Facing food shortages, winter, independence-minded republics, and widespread corruption, Mr. Gorbachev has been backed into a corner. The republic is fracturing. Increasingly, decisions and mandates from the Kremlin matter less - what happens in the 15 Soviet republics matters more.
One scenario for the economic chaos that may ensue (including Soviet refugees flocking west) is a kind of soft civil war inside the Soviet Union. Precedents exist.
A more likely scenario is one Gorbachev already seems to be positioning himself in the middle of: A general, popular demand for a strong leader among the Soviet people. The Russians will only be able to take so much destabilizing change, the argument runs, before demanding order.
Gorbachev's plan for a new union treaty - giving the 15 republics a collective say, underneath a central Soviet government headed by Gorbachev - has been rejected by the Baltics republics and Georgia. Boris Yeltsin, head of the Russian republic, doesn't want to share power with 14 other leaders.
Yet even if these republics succeed, they will still need security arrangements. Where will they go? Gorbachev is giving power to those in the military (General Boris Gromov, assistant to the new hardline Interior Minister Boris Bugo) who want a central army.
The impulse for autonomy in the republics is strong. It will continue. But in the short term, Gorbachev is banking on a popular Russian demand for stability.