IF THE hard-liners who engineered the coup d'etat against Mikhail Gorbachev Monday believe that a return to the old way of doing things will solve the problems facing the Soviet Union, they are tragically mistaken. Central control, martial law and dictatorship will only lead to further economic decline, greater chaos and even civil war. This isn't the end of the second Soviet revolution, just the beginning of another, possibly more dangerous, phase.
President Bush was correct to react with caution, but to make it clear all aid to the Soviet Union is going to be withheld pending developments. While the ability of the United States to influence events inside the Soviet Union is limited, the coup leaders must understand there is a price to be paid for their actions.
But the stakes are too high here for snap judgments or cheap moralizing. Bush must not lock himself into positions before he knows who and what is in control of the other nuclear superpower.
The nightmare scenario would occur if the hard-liners attempted to roll back Gorbachev's foreign policy. But this is unlikely to happen. Clearly, the coup leaders' concerns are domestic: The breakup of the union and the rapidly deteriorating economy are what worry them. In the foreign-policy field, it is too late to go back: The Warsaw pact is gone, Germany is reunited and Soviet troops are being paid to leave what used to be the Eastern bloc. It would take an all-out invasion to reverse the events of the last two years.
Maybe the hard-liners will be satisfied with only preserving the union and their prerogatives. Gorbachev faced that dilemma honestly, opting to reform the system. His failure was in not being able to accomplish the economic transformation. Indeed, most economic experts in this country believe he was singularly inept on economic matters. In that sense, his demise was ordained years ago. But the answer cannot be a return to the thoroughly discredited central planning and control.
The reality is that the coup, while shocking, is not a surprise. Gorbachev's days were numbered by the state of the economy and the breakup of the union. The question was whether hard-liners or reformers would replace him. The hard-liners, with military power, have made the first move. Now the question is whether the reformers, with people power, will be able to counter it.