THE March 17 vote to keep the Soviet Union together was carefully stage-managed by the military and the KGB, and it will probably give a short-term boost to Mikhail Gorbachev. It appears a clear majority in the Soviet Union favors preserving the nation under the Soviet leader. But the vote itself is inconclusive, and it is difficult to say whether Mr. Gorbachev will get any long-term gain from it. Perhaps just the opposite.
Given the chance to vote essentially on whether they want chaos or stability, the Soviets not surprisingly chose stability. But in various parts of the country it took officials providing such rare commodities as beer, cigarettes, lemons, and candy at the polling booths to get out the vote. Soldiers and others with pro-government leanings were reported to have voted more than once.
Nor is it clear that the risks of holding a national referendum were commensurate with the gains. Discussion of the decision by six republics to boycott the referendum was being censored in Moscow.
In one sense, the general outcome of the election could be positive. A shaky but unified military superpower may be better than a shaky and disunified one.
But Gorbachev no longer is surrounded by liberal advisers. The hard-liners in power, with a "unity" vote secured, probably will crank up the official propaganda machine and press individuals and republics to conform to Moscow's dictates - when what's really needed is economic reform and new, liberal agreements between Moscow and the republics regarding trade and greater political autonomy. Tensions are likely to increase.
Ironically for Gorbachev, the very attempt to use grass-roots "democratic" methods to secure more central authority may backfire in the long run.
First, in a period of relative openness, the Russian people have been offered a chance at direct elections on an issue of some complexity. They won't forget that experience in the future, as other issues come up.
Second, there's Boris Yeltsin. Gorbachev's peripatetic rival and the most popular politician in the country successfully used the referendum to create a directly elected office as president of the Russian Republic. Next summer he could be elected to that office and create a second major power center in the USSR. That could cause more budding of democracy.
Finally, a number of republics used the occasion for referendums of their own. This merely strengthens the democratic-separatist impulse in those republics. In the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, 52 percent of the people voted against preserving the union.
Democracy may be occurring, despite everything.