Fateful Days in Moscow

September 14, 1990

These are crazy and fateful days in Moscow. Speculation is rampant that hardliners might try to prevent the Soviet Union's slide to capitalism by staging a desperate military coup. Another sensation is a revelation that unless emergency funds are found, the government -- which already is battling shortages of meat, bread and cigarettes -- will run out of ink needed to print increasingly worthless rubles. Meanwhile, a much-maligned symbol of Western values, "Rambo -- First Blood," is showing to sell-out crowds.

These are mere diversions. The real drama concerns the future of the Soviet Union and it is being played behind high Kremlin walls.

Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov wants to give the moribund Communist-led centralized bureaucracy one last chance to recover the crumbling Soviet economy. But even his mentor, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, has concluded that the Ryzhkov plan is too little, too late. More drastic measures are needed. Yet Mr. Gorbachev is balking at a plan that would transform the Soviet Union from socialism to market economy in a mere 500 days. The Russian Republic, led by his rival Boris Yeltsin, has adopted that plan. Mr. Gorbachev seems to fear it will destroy the Soviet Union by transferring most economic control from the central government to the 15 republics.

For Mr. Gorbachev's sake, we hope he will overcome his hesitation and bite the bullet. At a time of worsening food shortages, continued procrastination is simply going to destroy his ability to lead the nation, which is growing increasingly restless, disorderly and impatient.

If all the republics and national legislatures agree, the economic recovery plan written by Stanislav S. Shatalin could go into effect as soon as Oct. 1. Much government property, including key factories, could be privatized within 100 days. By the 400th day, most price controls could be lifted. By the 500th day, about 70 percent of the country's industry, 80 percent of its construction projects, automobile transportation and wholesale trade could be in private hands. This is not painful medicine but radical surgery. The outcome is not guaranteed, except that without such an operation the patient is unlikely to survive.

We can appreciate how difficult all this must be for Mr. Gorbachev, who grew up believing in socialism. But he must be realistic enough to know by now that the days of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics are numbered. Unless he takes charge in building a new Union of Soviet Sovereign Republics (or whatever the successor state will be called), he may be among the victims of an economic and societal collapse.

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