MOSCOW -- Mikhail S. Gorbachev bolstered his diminished government yesterday by enticing the redoubtable Eduard A. Shevardnadze to return as foreign minister.
But even as the Soviet president persuaded his former critic to return to the post, the leaders of the newly powerful republics were working out a deal on their own with the major industrial nations to postpone payments on the huge Soviet debt.
Mr. Shevardnadze, whose angry resignation as foreign minister last December preceded the most tumultuous year in Soviet history, brings to the Kremlin some badly needed visibility abroad.
He is enormously popular with Western governments, but he returns at a time when the republics are stripping the central government of most of its authority.
His ministry, for instance, will be cut nearly in half this week as a result of budget cuts. And yesterday's crucial economic bargaining by the republics, which took place without Mr. Gorbachev, could mean the difference between recovery and chaos.
Yet Mr. Gorbachev, determined to remain an active political player and understanding the need in some Western countries to personalize politics, can only benefit from Mr. Shevardnadze's star quality.
For six years, the former Georgia Communist Party chief conducted Soviet foreign relations, winning friends in the West and cooperating with the end of communism in Eastern Europe. Then, unexpectedly last December, he quit, warning darkly of trouble from the Communist right.
Mr. Gorbachev veered toward the hard-liners, and a bloody showdown in Lithuania left more than a dozen dead. Mr. Shevardnadze, seemingly proved right, became a somber tribune for democracy, helping to form an opposition party, the Democratic Reform Movement, and issuing warnings about hard-line takeovers.
In June, Boris N. Yeltsin was elected president of Russia, and almost immediately Valentin S. Pavlov, the hard-line Soviet prime minister, and his allies tried to take power legally through the declaration of a state of emergency. Although Mr. Gorbachev forced them to back down, Mr. Shevardnadze's warning had once more seemed prophetic.
A Communist Party committee tried to call the former foreign minister to account; he refused the invitation and quit the party instead.
In August, the hard-liners tried again, this time illegally. Their attempted coup fell apart, the party was swept away, and Mr. Shevardnadze's stature became even more unassailable.
He replaces Boris D. Pankin, a relative unknown who was named foreign minister in the days following the collapse of the coup. Mr. Pankin will reportedly go to London as the Kremlin's ambassador.
Yet the main issue facing the country today is not foreign relations but economic relations. The Soviet Union is running out of gold and is nearly lacking in hard currency. It is about $5 billion short of the $7 billion it needs to meet debt payments for November and December.
Yesterday, leaders of nine of the 12 remaining republics agreed to assume the debt themselves, and in exchange representatives of the leading industrial nations offered deferrals on the payments, reportedly until January 1993, as well as additional credits.
At a meeting between republic leaders and finance officials from the so-called Group of Seven, all the republics but Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan agreed to shoulder their share of the $77 billion debt.
A 13-month deferral of payments would give each of the republics crucial breathing space -- a period in which they could begin to sort out their economies, woo back foreign investors and try to establish something resembling a sound currency.
It would also, coincidentally, give Mr. Shevardnadze time to restore some of the influence of his once and again boss, Mr. Gorbachev.