MOSCOW — The Soviet Union appears to be going through a creeping rightist coup d'etat in which five years of reforms under perestroika are being "corrected" and "consolidated" while the country searches for a new direction.
After five years of defeats, conservatives have counterattacked with unexpected success, thwarting plans for a 500-day fast march to a market economy. The military and security forces have launched campaigns to bring down the elected governments in three Soviet republics threatening to secede. And power is again being centralized, contrary to pledges of greater democracy.
Political developments of great scope and impact over the last four months have not only pushed perestroika to the right, but may have altered its very nature. And the pace of those developments is accelerating.
On Sunday night, Soviet commandos shot their way into the headquarters of the Latvian Interior Ministry, seizing the building in a gun battle that raged through the republican capital of Riga for 90 minutes. At least four people were killed and nine wounded.
Radical reformers increasingly see President Mikhail S. Gorbachev swinging hard to the right himself, persuaded by conservatives, particularly the military, that order must be restored to the the Soviet Union and some of his reforms must be rolled back in the name of "stabilization."
Conservatives see themselves preserving the Soviet Union as a unified state and remaining true to the ideals of socialism. And some, still unhappy with Gorbachev, have begun calling within top Communist Party circles for a "Government of National Salvation" to take over.
Gorbachev himself admits that "power has moved to the right," but contends that the nation has too.
A final judgment on the rightward shift nonetheless seems premature. Gorbachev, a master tactician, may well be manuevering through difficult times, trying to preserve a broad constituency for future reform and protecting the fundamental elements of perestroika --notably the country's basic democratization and the commitment to a mixed, market economy--from the conservative counterattack.
"We are not in a crisis, but in a deadlock, and that is worse," Anatoly P. Butenko, a political scientist at the Institute of the Economics of the World Socialist System, a Moscow think tank, commented in an interview last week. "No one--not the radicals, not the conservatives, not the party, not the government, least of all the military--has any idea of how to get out of it.
"There is just a feeling that, to go forward, we must first go back, and that gives the impression of retreat."
The main danger ahead, Soviet political analysts believe, will be the suspension of democracy through various forms of emergency rule and the removal of popularly elected governments. Other newly gained freedoms, such as an independent press or the establishment of new political parties, might also be limited.
The second danger, as Butenko noted, would be the stunting of perestroika, or restructuring, as the reform program is known. Conservatives from the Soviet military-industrial complex have already forced major changes in plans to put the country's economy on a market basis.
What Gorbachev seems most likely to defend in a tactical retreat is the philosophical base that he has laid for reform since 1985--the abandonment of the party's monopoly of power, the primacy of "common human values" over class interests, the ultimate superiority of the market as an organizing principle of the economy--for with these perestroika could be renewed.
While virtually all Soviet commentators rule out a return to the old totalitarian system, opinion polls show up to 45% of the population ready to accept the rule of a "strong hand," even a military coup, in the hope that it would restore order--and fill shop shelves.
"From the military, there is no coup--that danger is from the radicals, our anarchists," Col. Nikolai S. Petrushenko, a leader of the conservative Soyuz bloc in the Soviet Parliament, said last week. "Under the banner of democracy and faced with empty stores, the people are being pushed to rise up against Soviet power. That is the danger, and that is what we will fight with all our strength."
With such sentiments, Soviet paratroopers earlier this month seized the Lithuanian radio and television broadcast center in Vilnius from the republic's elected government on behalf of the anonymous Committee for National Salvation. Thirteen civilians and one soldier were killed in the action that Gorbachev and his ministers have justified as lawful.
The action, which Gorbachev said was not ordered by Moscow, brought a storm of criticism from liberals and radicals. Describing the attack as an attempt at "an overnight putsch" in Lithuania, former Soviet Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin said: "The generals do not have the right to send in tanks on the call of any committee, no matter how loudly it screams."