WASHINGTON — The Soviet Union is on the road to disaster caused by political disintegration, anarchy, economic collapse and possible civil war. Mikhail S. Gorbachev recently said, "Militant nationalism and reckless separatism in the Soviet Union could lead to Balkanization or even Lebanization . . . produc(ing) a snowball effect which would throw Europe back to a situation it knows so well from history." In other words, civil war in the Soviet Union could lead to a return of totalitarianism with dangerous repercussions throughout Eastern and Western Europe.
This calamitous prospect is not inevitable. There is still hope that Gorbachev's new emergency plan and treaty of union will bring order out of the existing chaos.
Fortunately, the Western powers are unanimous in their view that Gorbachev should be supported. Germany, France and Italy have been especially sensitive to Gorbachev's dilemma. They have backed him by word and deed. Along with Japan, they have agreed to provide more than $20 billion of credit. Germany is sending tons of surplus food and food parcels from private citizens.
The United States, Britain and Canada have also sought to help. President George Bush has said, "We would be prepared to send food to the Soviet Union during the bleak winter to help preserve Gorbachev's transition to a market economy and democracy." The United States probably will not provide much economic assistance until the gulf crisis is resolved, but it should provide technical assistance and Bush should use his authority to grant most-favored-nation status. The West cannot save Gorbachev, but certainly nothing should be done that will make his task more difficult.
We need to keep our eye on several realities to understand what is unfolding in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev's new thinking has transformed international relations, ended the Cold War and drastically reduced the danger of nuclear war. He has moved a long way toward dismantling the ideology of Marxism-Leninism and the communist system. This could only have been accomplished from within the Communist Party--for 73 years the only source of power. Until the Communist Party is replaced it will have an important role in Soviet policy.
Gorbachev has established several institutional mechanisms that, in time, will replace the power of the Communist Party. He knows this is essential to achieve his goals of genuine democracy, a market economy and a union of independent republics. But he also knows--and this is important--that progress will not be made, for the time being, without the acquiescence of the party. Gorbachev has succeeded in revising the constitution to permit political pluralism. He has created an elected legislature and formed new advisory and policy groups that substantially replaced the Communist Party organs--the Politburo and the Central Committee. Through glasnost, he has set in motion a process of freedom and human rights greater than anything experienced in their thousand-year history.
All this is fragile, however, because the people have had so little experience with democracy and freedom. It will take years to organize strong new political parties. In fact, a liberal wing of the Communist Party, split from the conservatives, may emerge that could win a national election. The first popular election for president will be in four years, when Gorbachev's term ends. Meanwhile, repercussions from the end of authoritarian control have been horrendous, both in the collapse of the economy and the inevitable demands for independence by the republics.
The Soviet command economy was a near disaster marked by pervasive inefficiency, corruption and sloth--but it did manage to provide inferior food, housing and health care for the populace. Now, the command economy is grinding to a halt with no realistic alternative system. The economy has declined from new disaster to disaster. Despite the best harvest in 20 years, there is less food, because of inadequate storage and transportation systems, rampant hoarding and economic warfare. Farmers are withholding food from the market in hopes of getting higher prices later this winter. Food is rotting in storage sheds. In the cities, most people manage to survive only by dealing on the black market--now half of the economy.