The struggle for power now going in the Soviet Union is inexorably pushing two rivals -- Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin -- into an awkward alliance against the forces of reaction led by Soviet Premier Valentin Pavlov. During the past week, as Mr. Yeltsin visited Washington and Mr. Gorbachev fought off an open challenge from Mr. Pavlov, their common cause became more important than their personal antagonism and conflicting ambitions.
Mr. Yeltsin, though feted as the first popularly elected leader in Russian history, was rather bluntly advised by President Bush that the U.S. was standing by Mr. Gorbachev and he would be wise to do the same. He agreed guardedly, though not before he told the National Press Club that "I shall never be an advocate of slow, half-hearted change."
There is little doubt tensions will remain as Mr. Yeltsin tries to increase the autonomy of the various Soviet republics while reducing the authority of Mr. Gorbachev's central government. But Mr. Yeltsin remarked during his Washington visit that "we still have forces back home that want to go back to the times of stagnation."
While these words might have applied to Mr. Gorbachev during his wintertime retreat from reform, the Soviet president in recent weeks has moved much closer to the Yeltsin-backed idea of a shock-effect transformation of the Soviet economy with technical advice and infusions of financial help from the West. This has caused a fierce reaction in Moscow among hardliners who charge that Mr. Gorbachev is selling out the Soviet Union, undercutting essential national security and making their country a beggar on the world stage.
With encouragement from the military, the KGB, the Interior Ministry and orthodox Communists, Prime Minister Pavlov sought last week to strip Mr. Gorbachev of considerable executive power. He failed, but his move should have reminded both moderate and radical reformers that there is still the danger of a reactionary coup in Moscow.
Before Mr. Gorbachev meets leaders of the industrial democracies at the Group of Seven summit in London next month, he should work with Mr. Yeltsin on a pending economic reform plan. Drafted by a young Soviet economist, Grigory Yavlinsky, and a group of Harvard scholars, it calls for large-scale privatization of state-owned property, a democratic free-market system and billions in Western aid.
During this uncertain period, a common Gorbachev-Yeltsin stand on dealing with the economic crisis would be the best insurance available for preserving stability in the Soviet Union. The Russian president has acquired much prestige by winning a popular election in the largest of Soviet federations. Mr. Gorbachev has once again displayed staying power by quashing Mr. Pavlov's challenge. Together they can do much good; apart they can bring much mischief upon themselves and their nation.