IN the aftermath of the dramatic resignation by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, before the assembled Soviet parliament on Friday, this icy capital has been abuzz with troubling questions. Why did a man considered President Mikhail Gorbachev's closest associate resign in such a public fashion, with a finger of blame clearly pointed in the president's direction? What does Mr. Shevardnadze's departure mean for the future direction of Soviet foreign policy? Is dictatorship really coming, as the white-maned Shevardnadze so eloquently warned?
In the circles around the president, Shevardnadze's action was angrily dismissed as a personal indulgence. ``Absolutely disgusting'' was the judgment of Arkady Maslennikov, previously the president's spokesman and now the spokesman for the Soviet parliament. ``His reasons presented have nothing to do with reality.''
The most common explanation for Shevardnadze's behavior is a curiously Russian one, pointing to his nationality.
``He is a Georgian and you know how emotional they are,'' was a typical comment. Ignoring the content of his speech, many Russians focus on Shevardnadze's angry denunciation of the right-wing colonels who repeatedly attacked him and his foreign policy.
A more sophisticated version of this was offered over dinner Friday by a top official of the State Commission on Economic Reform. Georgia, ruled by nationalists, is heading for independence. Shevardnadze may be seeking to separate himself from the Kremlin so he can grab a leadership role there.
Others reject such conspiratorial explanations in favor of the obvious - Shevardnadze meant what he said. ``Shevardnadze said he wanted to resign not because two colonels attacked him,'' says Vitaly Korotich, editor of the liberal weekly Ogonyok. ``He understands that changes are coming in this country which are impossible to fulfill without dictatorship and he doesn't want to serve on an authoritarian team.''
In his and others' view, Shevardnadze resigned only one step ahead of the axe. The ouster from prominence of leading liberals such as Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin and Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev meant that Shevardnadze, the most prominent remaining liberal around the president, was next.
The public form of Shevardnadze's exit is seen by many liberals as a telling sign of Mr. Gorbachev's increasing isolation as political and economic stability deteriorate. Shevardnadze felt compelled to talk to his close friend in public, perhaps because he could not do so in private.
Even Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, considered a conservative voice among the president's men, expressed this view.
``Of all those who started the struggle for perestroika [restructuring] in 1985, after Shevardnadze's resignation, I am the only one who remains at his side now,'' he told Tass news agency.
And Mr. Ryzhkov, too, is expected to depart if the Congress of People's Deputies approves Gorbachev's proposed reorganization of the presidential system.
Outside of the Soviet Union, the attention has naturally focused on what Shevardnadze's resignation means for Soviet external policy, particularly in the Persian Gulf. The foreign minister spoke about how his Gulf policy of alliance with the West had been attacked, suggesting his absence could bring a policy shift, at least in emphasis.
The Soviet spin controllers have worked overtime to try to counteract such perceptions.
Gorbachev met with his minister late on Friday, an event promoted by the president's spokesman as evidence that, as Tass put it, ``Soviet foreign policy will remain the same.'' Shevardnadze will continue to work on concluding the treaty to control strategic nuclear weapons, it was announced, a gesture clearly aimed at reassuring Washington.
But if that was Gorbachev's intention, then the speech on Saturday by KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov carried a curiously contradictory message. In a style chillingly reminiscent of pre-glasnost days, he assailed foreign intelligence services for trying to undermine the Soviet economy and promote separatist movements. The West was accused of everything from selling tainted grain to the Soviet Union to prompting a ``brain drain'' of emigrating Soviet specialists.
The most important question, though, is internal: Whither the polity of the Soviet Union?
The sense of an authoritarian drift is widespread, evidenced in the conservative tone of the president's pronouncements for the past few months. The turning point came in October, when Gorbachev rejected a radical plan for economic reform and sharing power with the 15 republics, drawn up in concert with Russian leader Boris Yeltsin. Instead, he opted for a more cautious path to the market and for a vision of union that preserved a strong federal state at the center.
Gorbachev seeks to enforce this approach through a new union treaty and changes in the power structure which will imbue the president with vast authority. Both changes are before this meeting of the Congress of People's Deputies, the country's highest legislative body, for approval.
But even if the Congress votes dutifully, these measures may be resisted by the nationalist governments ruling in now in many non-Russian speaking republics and by the democratic opposition, which nominally leads cities such as Moscow and Leningrad.
``The center is aware that it is impossible to implement its will without the instruments of violence,'' writes prominent political scientist Andranik Migranyan in the Independent Newspaper, a newly published liberal daily. He compares the present situation to Poland in 1981 when martial law was declared and the Solidarity movement outlawed. But unlike Poland, he argues, the democratic movement in the Soviet Union is very weak.
``I believe the center will be victorious in Russia and in certain other republics, because the democratic power is very fragile and inefficient,'' Mr. Migranyan says. Indeed, some liberal intellectuals now argue that the democrats were mistaken to take power in Moscow and elsewhere, because they have been discredited by not having real power to make changes. Moscow Mayor Gavril Popov, one of the leading democrats, told a Moscow paper this weekend that he was contemplating his own retirement.
Moscow Deputy Mayor Sergei Stankeivich told the daily Rabochaya Tribuna that the process of reform necessarily advances through alternating waves of democracy, which brings new ideas, and authoritarianism, which implements the ideas practically.
Perhaps such logic is behind the conciliatory posture adopted by Boris Yeltsin toward his rival, Gorbachev, in the last few days. He has distanced himself from Shevardnadze, instead backing ``strong presidential power'' as ``the only thing capable of setting things in order.''
If there is resistance to this course, it will likely come from the republics such as the Baltics, Georgia, and Moldavia, which have already declared their de-facto independence. On Saturday, Gorbachev issued a decree ordering the Moldavian government to rescind nationalist laws.
On Saturday, in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, President Vytautas Landsbergis called on citizens to prepare for ``resistance, self-defense'' against anticipated attempts to ``impose a union treaty upon Lithuania through threats of bloodshed and use of violence.''