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CIA Sees Limit to Toleration of Baltic Dissent

September 20, 1989|WILLIAM C. REMPEL | Times Staff Writer

American intelligence analysts are increasingly pessimistic about the progress of Soviet economic reforms and believe that President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's tolerance of political dissent may reach its limit over unrest in the Baltic republics, CIA Director William H. Webster said Tuesday during a breakfast meeting with reporters and editors of The Times.

Citing "the pervasiveness of the internal criticism" of Gorbachev's policies, Webster said the Soviet leader apparently is running out of time to show results or be forced to make concessions to conservatives.

"He must go one way or the other," Webster said. "He must drive his reforms forward, or he must do as the Russians are so good at doing: step back a couple of paces and accommodate the conservatives who want to draw some lines."

The director said his analysts expect Gorbachev to draw such a line in the Baltics "because he can't afford to have (violent nationalistic unrest) spread to the Ukraine."

Webster said that one of the biggest challenges facing Gorbachev--what he called the Soviet leader's "most unrelenting dilemma"--is keeping his reforms on track during this transition period when the effects of reform are not readily apparent.

"It will take a few more years to see economic benefits flowing from (reforms)," Webster predicted. "So, they're in a period where it's easy to criticize, to say nothing's happening." He said there thus are signs of increasing "anxiety pangs."

Nonetheless, Webster said, analysts still believe that Gorbachev is in control and that he has the political clout to keep pushing the reformist movement. Asked if CIA analysts believe Gorbachev can succeed, Webster responded:

"That's the debate. You will find those who think it is just too (difficult). There are others who say you are not dealing with an ordinary person. He has exercised extraordinary leadership, a gift for politics and a general understanding of where he's going.

"He has a time problem. That is where some of the analysts are trying to estimate how much time he has before this (criticism) catches up to him. . . .."

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