THE Soviet Union is disintegrating. The economy is collapsing, political authority is eroding, and assertive republics are seeking greater autonomy and independence. On April 23, Soviet President Gorbachev and nine of 15 republics signed an agreement to create a new relationship between Moscow and the republics, restore order, and revive the economy. Whether this plan will work is an open question. The next few months will be critical. Last fall, Gorbachev responded to growing chaos in the Soviet Union by aligning himself with the traditional pillars of power - the Communist Party, the military, and the KGB. During the winter, this swing to the right led to bloodshed in Lithuania and Latvia, miners' strikes, and opposition from democratic forces. In April, Gorbachev again switched course. He joined forces with the republics, especially the largest and richest, Russia, and its reformist leader, Boris Yeltsin.
The April 23 agreement has created a sense of opportunity. It outlines a plan for a new union treaty, a new constitution, and new national elections, including presidential elections. The central government of the Union of Soviet Sovereign Republics - the proposed new name of the country - would retain control over the issuance of currency, customs, defense, and some taxes, but all other powers would shift to the republics. The timetable calls for the signing of a new union treaty by mid-summer and the c
ompletion of a constitution six months after that, followed by elections within three months.
This agreement represents a truce in the long struggle between Yeltsin and Gorbachev. Yeltsin wants radical economic reform and a rapid transition to a market economy; Gorbachev wants a more gradual transition. Yeltsin favors a bottom-up approach to change, based on political grass roots in the republics; Gorbachev has attempted to impose change from above. Yeltsin believes political power must be decentralized if a market economy is to flourish; Gorbachev wants to preserve central power even if it mean s
delays in economic reform.
During the past six months, the popularity of Yeltsin's pro-reform, anticommunist message has grown, and Gorbachev's popularity has plummeted to below 15 percent. Gorbachev's weakness forced him to make concessions in an attempt to reconstitute some degree of central control. Yeltsin's election last week as president of the Russian Republic will give him added political strength with which to wrest power from the center and weaken further Gorbachev and the Communist Party.
THE April agreement has great potential importance. First, it is a return by Gorbachev to accelerated reform. Second, it lessens the danger of civil war because Gorbachev has accepted the republics' demands for significant sovereignty. Third, elections at the national level will strengthen democratic forces. Fourth, republics that did not sign - Georgia, Moldavia, Armenia, and the three Baltic states - apparently retain the right to secede. Most important, the agreement is a prerequisite for resolving p o
litical issues so that a new union government can take the tough steps required for economic reform.
It is unclear whether this agreement will hold as the Soviet economy continues to deteriorate. Central institutions are breaking down, and the new institutions of a market economy are not yet in place. Assertion of political control by the republics has resulted in economic fragmentation. If agreement on an economic plan, union treaty, and constitution is not reached soon, the April 23 accord will unravel.
Because the Soviet future is so uncertain, we need to look into arms-control agreements while we can. We need to implement the conventional-forces treaty to foster large troop cuts in Europe. We need to sign a START treaty to cut nuclear arsenals, because the Soviet Union still possesses 30,000 nuclear weapons.
The US cannot sit and watch the drama in Moscow. We have a vital stake in the success of Soviet reform. First, the Soviet Union will continue to be a major power in Europe and the third world. Second, Soviet armed forces, even if reduced, will remain formidable. Third, a collapse of the Soviet Union threatens Europe with a flood of refugees.
We should maintain relations with the Soviet government as well as expand the scope of our contacts with hard-liners and republic and regional governments. We should provide humanitarian and technical assistance to help build democratic institutions and implement economic reforms. I also support the additional $1.5 billion loan guarantees for the sale of US food and feed grains to the Soviet Union. But we should provide credits in installments in order to monitor repayment.
The US must insist on political and economic reform before extending aid to the Soviet Union. I oppose large-scale economic aid at this time, because it would mean pouring money down a bottomless drain and impede progress toward reform. US aid to the USSR must be part of a larger package (backed by the World Bank, the IMF, and other industrial countries) that follows free elections and market reforms.
Gorbachev is a key figure in modern history. The reforms he began and has allowed to take place are of enormous and positive significance for the people who live in the Soviet Union, for world peace and security, and for US interests. I do not think the great changes that took place in Eastern Europe can be reversed, or that those in the Soviet Union will be reversed.
It is in the US interest that the Soviet Union be transformed through political accommodation rather than force. The success of Soviet reforms is the best guarantee for peace and US security.