HARD-LINE changes in the Soviet Union are every day cause for serious reappraisals. There are few precedents for the disintegration of a modern superpower. Old-line party apparatchiks in the military and KGB, taking advantage of a world climate created partly by the Gulf war, have reasserted themselves. Asked this month if glasnost were over with, President Bush said no. Publicly, he could hardly have said otherwise. But Mr. Bush can't really believe it's glasnost-as-usual in Russia. Facts are hard to ignore:
Gorbachev is surrounded by conservatives; the liberals are out.
The Soviets dragging their feet on the strategic arms reduction (START) and conventional forces in Europe (CFE) treaties, and on withdrawal of 450,000 troops from Eastern Europe.
The press is restrained.
Economic retrenchment away from free markets.
Kremlin statements have unsettled Gulf coalition unity; Moscow's role in brokering peace in the region might help, but it also plays off anti-US sentiments.
Tension in the Baltics and other republics continues.
A campaign of official lies is being renewed on all fronts, most recently in a ludicrous assertion by Prime Minister Pavlov that Soviet and Western banks had flooded the country with rubles in an attempt to ``quietly annex'' the Soviet Union.
Is perestroika finished? Two schools, roughly, are emerging on this question. The first, a ``traditionalist-tragic'' view, says the entire political culture of the Soviet society - from its institutions to its ethos - is terminally ill. Crime, drinking, distrust, malaise are in the ascendency. A military dictatorship is descending; the fatalistic Russian character, fearing disorder, desires a strong hand.
Another ``progressivist-pause'' school sees the Soviet Union undergoing a huge backlash from the Olympian reforms it engaged. Efforts to retreat from empire, acceptance of German reunification, confronting the military-industrial complex, economic reform - all would take any country decades to achieve, whereas the Soviets have tried to do it in two years. Russia needs time to pause and assimilate; grass-roots democratic forces in the republics need time to develop some civic structures.
Paradoxically, both these schools of thought are probably right. Despite hard-line changes in the Kremlin, and perhaps despite neglect of its own, the West must continue to support Soviet reform. An unstable military superpower loaded with nuclear weapons should not be left to its own devices.
Western preoccupation with the Gulf war at the expense of engagement with the Soviets is a serious mistake. Economic help to the republics and to the fledgling private enterprises in Russia is important. Continued East-West ``citizen exchanges'' are crucial. The White House should quickly reschedule the canceled February summit. If the best short-term outcome in the Soviet Union is a confederation between the ``center'' and the republics, the West should support such an effort. The year 1991 should not be looked back at as a time when Soviet stability hung in the balance, and the West did nothing. The price of that is too high.
Fedor Burlatsky, longtime editor of Literaturnaya Gazeta, commented in the US recently that his 16-year-old daughter had just told him she wanted to be baptized as a believer, an act in the Soviet Union that carries political weight as well. Mr. Burlatsky said he didn't know what to tell her - that she seemed to see more clearly than he a new way. It is within the coming generations, Burlatsky noted, that the real perestroika will take place.
In today's uncertain climate, the West must consider this.