For the past five years, events in the Soviet Union have been taking place at a head-spinning pace as Mikhail S. Gorbachev tries to resuscitate the crumbling communist giant. He has worked miracles in erasing the Stalinist legacy of fear. He has not been able to stop the economic rot, however. As a result, the country is now plunging into disintegration and chaos.
In Moscow, a group of erstwhile perestroika cheerleaders has told Mr. Gorbachev: "Either affirm your ability to take decisive measures, or resign." Meanwhile, an opinion poll says 62 percent of the public fears famine this winter.
Mr. Gorbachev has now proposed dumping his embattled prime minister and giving himself more power. This marks the third time this year he has asked the lawmakers to grant him more authority.
The president -- who has never submitted himself to a popular election -- is seriously beginning to look like a red czar. The Soviet Union may be ready for a benevolent autocrat; whether it is ready for Mr. Gorbachev in that role is quite another matter.
"Disappointed by the fruitlessness of democracy, the people are rapidly becoming fertile ground for a 'strong hand,'" the increasingly radical Izvestia wrote before the latest revamp proposal. But Mr. Gorbachev is in a terrible bind. For a long time his base has been steadily eroding. His popularity is at an all-time low and people seem to have lost faith in his ability to turn things around. If his latest proposal is approved, he may win more bureaucratic power, but that may leave him even weaker and more vulnerable for criticism.
In a larger sense, his request for extraordinary powers is troubling. While Mr. Gorbachev may be able to guide his country wisely if such powers are granted, he would be instituting a system that his eventual successors could turn back into a dictatorship overnight.
The next ten days will be critical for Mr. Gorbachev. Within that period, he has promised to submit his draft of a new union treaty that would outline the future power-sharing arrangement between the Kremlin and the 15 Soviet republics. Most of these republics have declared sovereignty; several want to leave the Soviet Union altogether.
Americans cannot be uninterested bystanders in witnessing these convulsions. During his rule, Mr. Gorbachev has proven to be an honest partner. It is in this country's interest to help him in these difficult times, making sure that the current democratic spirit prevails. But the United States should also step up contingency planning so that whatever happens in Moscow will not catch it unprepared.