Soviets Edging Toward Chaos

January 22, 1991

The clock is ticking for Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Nothing seems to be going well for the Soviet president any more. The "black beret" paratroopers' bloody crackdown in the Baltic republics has been messy, but it has failed to restore communist rule in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. It has managed to destroy Mr. Gorbachev's carefully cultivated public image, however. The once-acclaimed Nobel Peace Prize laureate now is being scorned as the "gravedigger of perestroika." Meanwhile, many sectors of Soviet economy are at a standstill as materials do not get delivered, electric power is sporadic and absenteeism of workers is growing. Mr. Gorbachev, after having jettisoned many of his long-time advisers, now is being abandoned by the reformist rank and file. "Resign! Resign!" a crowd of 100,000 shouted Sunday outside the Kremlin.

The whole Soviet Union seems to be in the process of dividing into two camps. In one camp are Mr. Gorbachev and the forces whose extralegal influence he tried to curtail during nearly six years of reforms -- the KGB, the military, the stodgy communist bureaucracy. The other camp is coalescing around Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. It includes many of perestroika's erstwhile cheerleaders, who now seem aghast at Mr. Gorbachev's actions and his alliance with reactionaries.

Mr. Gorbachev clearly is in trouble. For him, the Baltic crackdown so far has produced nothing but grief. As the public outcry keeps mounting, his options are disappearing. In the end, he may resort to direct presidential rule of the rebellious Baltic republics. But such a declaration of martial law -- which has been long anticipated -- at this late date might trigger an explosion leading to civil war. "Civil war in a country full of atomic power stations and nuclear arsenals. This is a horrible prospect for the entire world," Gen. Dmitri Volkogonov, a Soviet Army historian, wrote recently.

What makes this situation so difficult for Mr. Gorbachev is that in order to defuse it, he would have to get rid of some of the key figures of the hardline coalition that now controls the Kremlin. The Soviet president probably could restore some public confidence in his administration by blaming the Lithuanian and Latvian bloodsheds on Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov and Interior Minister Boris Pugo. He is unlikely to do so. Yet unless Mr. Gorbachev is ready to do something that drastic, his country is likely to continue its slide into chaos.

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