Slippery slopes are as dangerous on the way up as on the way down. After five years of talk, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is heading up the very steep slope that he hopes will lead from the debris of communism to something that at least resembles market economics. The West should reach out a steadying hand, as appropriate.
Nothing like this has been done since economics declared itself a science: that is to say, abandoning a system that has collapsed for one that functions. It is not made easier by a nostalgia that some Russians already feel for the dead system. But even though there is no chart, the most slippery parts of the slope do stand out.
The transition won't work without price reforms but, as Times writer Michael Parks reported from Moscow this week, canceling subsidies for food and other moves to market pricing could mean a doubling or tripling of living costs. As state-owned industries are sold off, new managers will cut work forces to proper size and large-scale unemployment will show up for the first time in 70 years. Are the so-far-largely docile people of the Soviet Union ready for bread riots? More to the point, is the Soviet leadership prepared to ride out such riots without the violence that could drag them back to the bottom of the slope?
Not only must Gorbachev keep his footing, he also must deal with restive troops, bitter over pay and housing in the middle ranks and over virtual prisoner status at the bottom. He must avoid at least the appearance of a breakup of the Soviet empire. He must climb knowing that for most revolutions there are counter-revolutions. He cannot count on being the exception. But climb he must. As Leonid I. Abalkin, the Kremlin's chief economist, puts it, without change the Soviet Union has "no future as a great power."
Nothing in the record suggests--despite the late Andrei Gromyko's glimpse of "iron teeth" behind his smile--that there is a Hyde to Gorbachev's Jekyll who could turn tyrant and brute. But Gorbachev might well have to use his sweeping new--some in the Kremlin say excessive--powers to suppress strikes, put down riots and hold his empire together with force in order to survive as the Soviet leader. If even limited pockets of anarchy were to crop up, the KGB might well revert to the terrorist role it enjoyed in Stalin's time. That might happen after communism's old guard crept back into power, but nobody yet stands out as the logical leader of such a move.
Washington could not ignore the chaos that would result from such worst-case developments, but neither could it do much except keep a 24-hour watch. Gorbachev in the role of oppressor while he tried to pull the Soviet Union out of the rubble of communism would be something between him and his people, not between him and Americans.
Most means of reaching out to steady Gorbachev in all of this are in the private sector. This would come at first largely from foreign investment in joint ventures, some of which already are in operation and succeeding. The U.S. government has less freedom to operate; even if it had any money left over, Washington could not lend it to a Soviet leader already under fire from his right for selling Moscow down the river.
In one sense, Western governments can best help by doing nothing: not building more bombers, not trying to put missile defenses into space, not giving Moscow any reason to worry that it is making a mistake by dismantling its own military forces under arms-control agreements.
Doing that kind of nothing would help Gorbachev and his allies by depriving Kremlin conservatives of arguments for taking control. But its biggest benefit would come from Moscow's feeling free to shift billions of rubles from defense to storefronts. It is just that sort of win-win possibility that should keep the West rooting for Gorbachev to make it to the top of the slope.