THE Soviet Union may be entering its own era of good feelings, a time when arch rivals Russian leader Boris Yeltsin and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev exchange declarations of trust and even cooperation. Many who have been through the rise and fall of several Gorbachev-Yeltsin deals, and watched reform plans falter with them, reserve judgment. But it is difficult to deny that the atmosphere in Moscow has markedly changed in the last three weeks.
This shift began with the April 23 meeting between Mr. Gorbachev and the leaders of nine republics, followed by Gorbachev's defiance of conservative Communists, leading up to apparent agreement last week between 13 of the republican governments and the Kremlin on an "anticrisis" program.
On top of this comes Moscow's latest political titillation - an appeal to the Group of Seven leading industrial nations penned by Yevgeny Primakov, a Gorbachev aide, and Grigory Yavlinsky, a radical economist and one-time Yeltsin aide. The document proposes that a radical reform plan be formulated by the republics and the Kremlin, with the aid of experts from the "seven."
In return for implementing the plan, the Group of Seven would carry out an aid program. This would include debt relief, long-term credits, admittance into the International Monetary Fund and other international organizations, trade privileges, and foreign investment.
Mr. Yavlinsky has credibility as the key author of the "500-day" radical reform plan that was backed and then dumped by Gorbachev last fall. Soviet officials played down Yavlinksy's latest role as "unofficial," but confirmed the substance of his effort.
Deputy Premier Vladimir Shcherbakov said he would accompany Mr. Primakov to Washington soon to discuss economic cooperation. Gorbachev is said to wish to be invited to the Group of Seven's annual summit this July. He has already raised this with United States President Bush, French President Francois Mitterrand, and Japanese leaders.
Yavlinsky's ideas closely follow those of Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, the adviser to the Polish government on reforms. The two men appeared side by side at a Harvard University-sponsored conference here last week. Professor Sachs called for the West to put a commitment to about $30 billion in annual aid on the table, but tie it to introduction of a comprehensive reform package and to creation of a popularly-elected government.
"Only a democratic government will win the time and the support to carry out such a program," Sachs suggested, pointing to the example of Poland where Communist-authored reform programs failed for lack of trust. Sachs sees the June 12 election of a Russian president, in which Mr. Yeltsin is considered a sure winner, as "the most decisive event for economic reform that I could possibly imagine."
According to this scenario, the fulfillment of a pledge at the April 23 meeting to hold new parliamentary and presidential elections would complete the stage.
The government of Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov must go, Sachs says, and be replaced by a coalition between the democrats and pro-reform Communists.
Yavlinsky told the liberal weekly Moscow News that he had written his own plan to negotiate an end to the republican unrest and other conflicts. He claimed that Gorbachev encouraged him to merge this with an economic reform plan.
Reform had faltered before for two reasons, Yavlinsky told the conference - the lack of social preparedness and the resistance from the military-industrial complex, the military, and other "antimarket" forces. He claimed to have evidence that "now the situation has changed completely." The popular mood has swung in favor of reforms, evidenced in the actions of striking miners and others, he argued.
More illusively, Yavlinsky referred to changes in the attitude of military industry and its allies, a growing conviction that they can weather the transition to a market economy. Other Soviet analysts point to the emergence of a force of "modernizers," as historian L. Shevsova described it in an article in the government daily Izvestia on May 15.
The new force is based on pragmatic industrial managers and technocrats who favor the market but also want a strong executive.
They look to Korea, Japan, or Singapore as their models. The name most often linked to this grouping is Arkady Volsky, president of the League of Scientific and Industrial Associations and a possible prime minister.
Yavlinsky seems to be close to such views, warning at the conference about "the danger of populism," putting that label on both the Pavlov government and Yeltsin for budget-busting policies.
The image of a stable transition out of the deep Soviet crisis is tantalizing. But Moscow Deputy Mayor Sergei Stankeivich expressed the view of many here when he told the Harvard conference that "it is too early to say whether dialogue or a reversion to power politics will occur."