THE battle between hard-line and democratic forces in the Soviet Union will get tougher in coming days, as a March 17 national referendum approaches. In some ways it's a battle between Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. In other ways it's between the forces of central Soviet control and the demand for autonomy made by various republics. The questions are: Under what terms will republics be linked to the Soviet center, and who will help shape these terms?
Mr. Gorbachev, last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner and the architect of glasnost, now advocates a ``communist'' approach in the Soviet Union - and is utilizing the old party apparatus. Mr. Yeltsin, who recently helped curb the repression in Lithuania, now openly touts ``democracy'' - and is helped by a covey of liberal intellectuals booted out by Gorbachev.
Communism versus democracy is far too simplistic a reading of the Soviet situation. Gorbachev is not a hard-liner; nor is Yeltsin a Jeffersonian democrat. But those are the rough contours of the struggle.
Nor will the March 17 referendum be a mandate. The original referendum plan, designed by Gorbachev, has lost its clout and is proving something of an embarrassment. The vote for a ``treaty of union'' - to bring republics into line and give the Kremlin more central power - won't be conclusive since as many as seven separatist-minded republics won't participate.
Among participating republics - including the ``inner core'' of Russia, Byelorussia, Kazakhstan, and the Ukraine - much work will be left following the vote. Trade agreements and military responsibilities won't be decided. (A plan still on the table by Leningrad mayor Anatoly Sobchak would carve the Russian Republic into 30-plus small republics).
What will be decisive on March 17 is the result of a ballot question added by Boris Yeltsin to the Russian Republic vote. It asks whether or not to have a directly elected Russian Republic president. If it passes, Yeltsin could run for the spot next summer and quickly become the politician with the largest popular power base in the Soviet Union.
Such an outcome would have direct bearing on the future shape of any union or ``federation.'' Yeltsin is now enduring a tough negative media campaign managed by Kremlin hard-liners and echoed by party members in the countryside. But he retains much support among the people.
Political uncertainty in Russia is not pleasant for Russians, or for Westerners. But it is promising that a struggle involving camps with different ideas and approaches is taking place at all.