THE central agenda of Soviet politics has shifted from economic reform to the preservation of order and the unity of the nation. When Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev speaks these days, as he has done repeatedly in the past week, the emphasis is on preserving stability amidst deepening economic decay, nationalist fissures, and growing pessimism about the future.
At a crucial session of the national Congress of People's Deputies, which opens today, Mr. Gorbachev will seek backing for increasing his extensive presidential authority and for a draft treaty of union among the Soviet Union's 15 republics.
In the absence of broad political support, the Soviet leader has turned to two seemingly incongruous tools to achieve his aims - the ``strong hand'' of the KGB (the secret police) and other security forces, and the calming carrots of Western aid packages.
The Soviet political scene noticeably tensed following a national television appearance last Tuesday by KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, in which he delivered a dire warning against ``anticommunist forces'' seeking to gain power by ``using undemocratic tactics.'' His call for vigilance, issued on Gorbachev's orders, also referred to unnamed foreign backers of separatist movements in the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev himself, speaking to a Communist Party Central Committee meeting early last week, warned that the greatest danger to the nation is ``dyed-in-the-wool, extreme nationalism.'' The president moved Saturday to regain control over the economy and ``prevent the disruption of production,'' issuing a decree banning the republics from conducting trade without central government involvement.
At the same time, Gorbachev hopes that Western aid will calm the fraying temper of a Soviet population, angered by extreme shortages, particularly of food. More than 1,272 tons of foreign food aid has already arrived in the Soviet Union, according to Soviet officials.
The Soviet government acknowledges what many Western experts have pointed out - that the immediate problem is less one of famine than of a collapsing system of distribution.
``There is no less food in the Soviet Union now than there was last year,'' Vyacheslav Chernoivanov, deputy head of the cabinet's State Commission on Food and Purchases told the government daily Izvestia on Friday.
But the same officials see emergency aid as a key means of getting through the unstable period of the winter and perhaps beyond.
Gorbachev insists that he has not backed away from plans for transition to a market-based economy, a charge widely made by radical circles here.
In an interview with Fortune magazine, the Soviet leader called for large-scale Western business investment to aid this shift.
``What we need now is cooperation - not charity,'' he told the business magazine. ``Cooperation ... so that we could strengthen our domestic market.''
Despite this talk, conservative forces in the Soviet Communist Party and the government bureaucracy clearly feel emboldened by the new political climate and are seeking to regain lost political influence.
Russian Communist Party leader Ivan Polozkhov called for the establishment of a ``national salvation committee'' to restore socialist values, in an assault on reform in the Communist Party daily Pravda on Saturday.
``Modern capitalism of the Western-type is being widely advertised to the Soviet people, but in fact the way is being opened to the domination of our domestic criminal bourgeosie and the establishment of the rule of the mafia,'' Mr. Polozkhov told Pravda.
Such hard-line rhetoric has scared radical democrats who worry about a chilling of political and economic freedom and a roll-back of reforms.
``I fear a repeat of the 1930s,'' said Sergei Yushenko, a leader of the radical Democratic Russia movement, referring to the mass terror campaign unleashed by former dictator Joseph Stalin.
Radical leaders also say the political left is in total disarray and is in no position to resist the drift toward authoritarian rule. They add that democratic institutions are still fragile and could easily crumble.
``We are moving to a very dangerous form of power - one that has no basis in law,'' says Viktor Sheinis, a radical Russian Federation legislator. ``The left has not been acting firmly to resist the trend.''
The tactics seem to have worked. The Russian Congress of People's Deputies, which concluded its own three-week session on Saturday, decided to support participation of the Russian Federation, the largest of the country's republics, in union treaty negotiations.
Just three weeks ago, Russian radicals were saying treaty talks could not take place without a new republican constitution in place to ensure the Russian Federation's sovereignty.
Nevertheless, opposition to signing the new union treaty remains high in some of the more independence-minded republics, such as the three Baltic republics and Georgia. Soviet Parliament Speaker Anatoly Lukyanov warned last week that republics refusing to sign the new treaty will still be bound to Moscow by the existing 1922 pact.
Although some observers foresee only crackdown and confrontation, such pessimistic predictions are not shared by all. A senior Western diplomat said that, although recent tough-talk is worrisome, ``we really don't know what is in [Gorbachev's] mind.''
But, the diplomat added, ``if there is an attempt to solve political problems by force here, it would have a very negative effect on relations.''