SOVIET President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's reforms broke up the old Soviet economic machinery before anything was ready to replace it. Now the ultimate test is upon him and his fractious people. The odds against saving his economy seem formidable.
Turmoil in the Soviet Union is emphatically not in the world's interest. That being the case, Washington must examine closely a gloomy assessment by the World Bank that the Soviet economy is in free fall. The Soviets will need U.S. and others' help, not to revive their economy but to soften unemployment and feed millions who might otherwise go hungry while they build a new economy.
Soviet economists saw the collapse coming, in an 80 percent inflation rate, in runaway growth in money supply, in falling oil production and in all-but-empty markets. Even with the best of planning, reversing field would be hard enough. Some die-hard communists clamor for a crackdown, more central authority and less of the free market. Liberal reformers insist faster change is the only alternative to chaos. In the face of this, the Soviet Parliament gave Gorbachev more power, on paper, but withheld a way of enforcing his orders. Gorbachev, in turn, picked for vice president Gennady I. Yanayev. "We have no right to pursue an unpredictable, convulsive policy in a country with 300 million people," he said. It's far too late to embrace caution as a political savior for a world power already irretrievably changed.