THE view among prominent liberal foreign policy specialists in Moscow who look to Boris Yeltsin for leadership is that a crackdown on the independent-minded republics will be followed by changes in Soviet foreign policy toward the West as well. They believe that Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's recent departure marks the end of Mikhail Gorbachev's reformist stage. The only question is when and how things will change.
It has been clear to all of them for more than a year that Mr. Gorbachev has moved to the right, that his retreat on the domestic front is not merely a tactical necessity, and that under his leadership there will be neither real economic reform nor meaningful political decentralization.
During a series of conversations in December, these specialists - some of them friends for 15 years - explained Soviet politics at the beginning of 1991.
Until Mr. Shevardnadze's resignation, much of what had taken place at the Congress of People's Deputies had been either irrelevant or prearranged. The recent Congress had opened with harsh words from an unknown party worker with years of loyal service in the party apparat. She rose and, in a shaky voice reading a speech she did not write, told the president and the leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that his policies had brought ruin to the country. You do not have to be in the Soviet Union for long to know that such events cannot occur spontaneously. (Indeed, everyone I met in Moscow was convinced this particular charade had been orchestrated in order to position Gorbachev before the world community as a centrist under attack.)
Shevardnadze's warning is viewed differently. True, he is a former Politburo member, indelibly identified with Gorbachev's policies and, until recently, his loyal ally. But now Shevardnadze says the danger from within is real. My friends interpret his words to mean that, given Gorbachev's turn to the right at home, the foreign policy of recent years will have to come to an end.
They look at Gorbachev more with sorrow than anger. He is the best the party can offer, and he is still needed. For now, he stands between them and the immediate triumph of the generals and the apparat. For the time being, he seems reluctant to use force to uphold the Kremlin's rule over the republics. This is why, when the critical vote of confidence was taken at the Congress, the liberal reformers supported Gorbachev.
Thus, even though Gorbachev is now on the other side - unwilling to relinquish his power to the republics - he may still make a difference. By holding off the generals and the KGB who are already pushing for a crackdown, Gorbachev's continued presence may give the advocates of democratization and decentralization enough time to build alternative institutions independent of the party.
My friends are puzzled why all this - the dynamics of peaceful transition - is overlooked in the West.
How is it, they wonder, that as Gorbachev sidelines the initiators of perestroika, punishes his critics on the left but never on the right, and clings to obsolete socialist ideals that brought this country to ruin, the West insists he is the only hope for reform?
How did it happen, they ask, that while Boris Yeltsin surrounds himself with the best liberal minds in the country - people who have left the Communist Party and cast their lot with the republics - the West still insists that there are no viable democratic alternatives to Gorbachev?
They don't ask the West to choose, and they don't ask us to like or trust Mr. Yeltsin. They know it is difficult to figure out what Yeltsin is all about. But they recall that for several years the West, especially Washington, didn't trust in and hesitated to support Gorbachev - waiting to judge him on his deeds and not on his words. Why doesn't the West do the same now?
On the domestic issue of the day - who will own what land - the difference between Yeltsin and Gorbachev could not be clearer. My friends point out that it was the highest organ of the Russian Republic, under Yeltsin's leadership and despite Gorbachev's opposition, that made the historic decision to proceed with the introduction of private land ownership.
On foreign policy, Yeltsin has not yet had a chance to prove his intentions, but there is nothing to suggest that the policies he or his new foreign minister would pursue differ in any way from the policies Gorbachev and Shevardnadze introduced.
Yet these specialists insist that, given the new pressures on Gorbachev, he will have to distance himself from the West. This is so because domestic and international politics are so intimately connected in the Soviet Union. Step by step, Soviet and American interests could start to diverge on the Gulf, then on other global issues, and then, of course, on human rights.
Will the increasingly influential KGB transform the struggle against domestic opponents into a search for foreign enemies?
My friends' concern is that if Gorbachev continues to inch toward a benevolent, paternalistic type of dictatorship, Washington will look the other way when he begins to impose order on the rebellious republics. They fear that the American interest in maintaining Soviet support for the alliance against Saddam Hussein will prevail over our interest in democratic change. Indeed, wouldn't Moscow use a war in the Gulf as a cover for domestic crackdown? Didn't the Soviet Union invade Hungary in 1956 when the US was preoccupied with the Suez crisis?
As my week in Moscow ended, I knew what message to take home: The choice is not between Gorbachev and chaos or even Gorbachev and Yeltsin. The issue is peaceful change and economic reform. As 1991 began, the mood in Moscow was uncertain and somber.