THE adage that the world helps those who help themselves seems to be lost on the beleaguered Soviet Union.The international community, sharply focused on the remnants of Soviet central authority, promises help if an all-union economic and political strategy is resurrected. But the fractured republics have produced little more than acrimony, leaving would-be world assistance hanging in the balance. Anders Aslund, director of the Stockholm Institute of Soviet and East European Economics, and a leading analyst of Soviet affairs, says the devolution of power to the local level is inevitable, and Western measures to preserve the center are wasting precious time. "The only legitimate authority is on the republic level, and that authority shrinks every day that no serious economic remedies are undertaken," says Mr. Aslund, who meets frequently with Soviet officials on the union and local levels. Meanwhile, inter-republican, ethnic, and nationalist problems intensify as the economy deteriorates: Ruble presses print a near-worthless currency 24 hours a day, inflation rages at 3 percent a week, and republics become more strident in their defiance of central authority. Soviet leaders desperately trying to forge economic and political links know just how poor their prospects are. On Oct. 21, less than a week after only eight out of the 12 republics signed a watered-down economic agreement, only seven of the 12 sent full delegations to the postponed opening of the new Soviet legislature, the Supreme Soviet. Aslund says his own apocalyptic outlook on Soviet affairs is fast becoming reality. "Two months after the coup, the extraordinary opportunity of solving intractable political and economic problems ... is being wasted." All the inter-republican efforts to legislate or sign agreements are "absolutely irrelevant. Absolutely insincere," says Aslund. "By and large they know no union is possible. Nothing can be done on this level, and no one wants to admit it," he says. He also has harsh words for the international community, which he says considers the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the panacea for complex Soviet economic problems. The IMF, the newly charged leader of globally supplied economic advice and future cash infusions, is naively fixed on the centrists, says Aslund. "The Fund ... believes that the Soviet Union still exists and they talk to people such as [Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev and [chief economic policymaker Grigory] Yavlinsky, who want to maintain the illusion," he says. With a 20 percent fall in national income this year and some 280 million people on the brink of total chaos, "this is one of the worst financial disasters the world has seen," says Aslund. The world doesn't have the luxury of deluding itself about the success of central coordination, he says. He concedes that it would be more expedient to address pressing problems on a central level, but "these are tremendously political decisions, and they must be undertaken where political legitimacy exists - on the republic level." The budget deficit is now almost 30 percent of the gross national product (compared with the relatively healthy US economy, where the deficit accounts for roughly 5 percent of GNP). Soviet food subsidies are one-tenth of the GNP, and oil prices are 60 times lower than world market prices. Only the politically empowered republics can make tough decisions to reverse these policies crippling the economy, says Aslund. Mr. Yavlinsky told foreign bankers Oct. 16 that their help is essential to shore up the sagging national economy. Soviet economic disintegration is exacerbated by nagging political problems, he told them, and claimed that 88 percent of borders between republics are not officially recognized, and thus open to dispute. Inadvertently, Yavlinsky, an avowed centrist, is moving closer toward Aslund's view. After weeks of promoting the economic agreement as a reliable means of maintaining cooperation among the remaining 12 republics, the chief Soviet economic policymaker concedes it may never be realized. But he is still counting on financial support from the world's richest countries as bait to lure the republics into a centrally coordinated economy. "This is one of the worst financial disasters the world has seen. A crash program is needed, and it can only be carried out on the republic level," says Aslund. Centrists such as Mr. Gorbachev and Yavlinsky have "no political mandates. The centrists will lose to political realities," he says. Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldavia, and the Ukraine all rejected the inter-republic economic accord Oct. 18. Indeed, the signatories themselves were begrudging, citing elements of the agreement that infringe upon their newly acquired sovereignty. The next few months will prove a "terrible disaster for Central Asian republics. Most of their leaders are anti-reform ... against any democratization," says Aslund. Indeed, simply trying to coordinate policy with these republics "will cause long delays in reform," he says. "Sooner or later, Russia will say no to subsidizing them," he says. Added hardships will likely add fuel to the hard-liners' and Muslim fundamentalists' fire in this impoverished region. Like many Soviet watchers, Aslund doesn't discount the prospect of the existing republics breaking up into still more separate entities. Russia, the most populous and resource-rich republic and relatively stable, "is in total disarray," says Aslund. In addition to no economic leadership and a confused political scene, he says, "there is a serious discussion of Siberia [part of the Russian republic] going independent."