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PERSPECTIVE ON THE SOVIET UNION : One Firm Push Can Tip the Scales : Good news of progress abounds, but so do hard-line rumblings. The West's attention can make a difference.

July 14, 1991|VLADIMIR POZNER | Vladimir Pozner, a Soviet political commentator and television celebrity, is the author of "Parting With Illusions" (Atlantic Monthly Press).

MOSCOW — As the members of the G-7 prepare to meet with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, as they deliberate whether they should or should not lend more than a sympathetic ear to his appeal for economic support, they would do well to take careful stock of the good news and the bad news about the Soviet Union.

The good news:

--Slightly more than one month ago, on June 12, the people of Russia demonstrated their desire for change and democratic reform not only by electing Boris Yeltsin president of the Russian Federation on the first ballot (which should have been expected); they also gave Gavriil Popov and Anatoly A. Sobchak landslide victories in the contests for mayor of Moscow and of Leningrad. These were far less predictable. Since March, 1990,when Popov and Sobchak were elected chairmen of their city councils, the party bureaucracy did everything it could, including sabotage, to make their jobs impossible. Things got worse--the food situation was precarious--and all of it was blamed on "the so-called democrats." This strategy, which was supposed to lead to a general disillusionment with the "liberals," backfired: 65% voted for them in both Moscow and Leningrad.

--Gorbachev has clearly moved to the left--so clearly, in fact, that a swing back to the right has become virtually impossible, be it only because the right will no longer have him.

--There is a growing consolidation of democratic forces. On the official level this is illustrated by the coming together of Gorbachev and Yeltsin and by the birth of a process that looks like the forging of a new union, acceptable to most of the republics, in which the center will play a minimal role. On the public level, the consolidation is demonstrated by the emergence of a broad new democratic coalition, founded by the likes of Alexander N. Yakovlev, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, Stanislav S. Shatalin and others.

--Last, but certainly not least, privatization is now official: Opposition notwithstanding, the Supreme Soviet passed a law on privatizing state-owned enterprises and facilities, an event of epic importance. That is the good news. It reflects the progress of perestroika and addresses the crucial question of how much the system has changed here since March, 1985.

Now, the bad news:

--Slightly more than one month ago, on June 12, a virtually unknown self-proclaimed contender for the Russian presidency came in third (behind Yeltsin and former Premier Nikolai I. Ryzhkov) with 6 million votes, or 7% of the total. His name is Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky and he is the chairman of something called the Liberal Democratic Party. Trust me: Mr. Zhirinovsky is neither liberal nor democratic; Mr. Zhirinovsky is a fascist. Throughout the campaign he played to Russian nationalism, to anti-Semitism, to xenophobia. He played to the feelings of lost direction, hurt pride, shaken ideals and shame that so torture most Russians today. He promised that he would give them back that pride, furnish direction, restore ideals and get rid of those whose aim it has always been to destroy Russia. Just elect me, said he, and see what happens. Six million people bought into that. That is a lot more than the percentage that voted for Hitler when he first ran.

--Slightly less than one month ago, Prime Minister Valentin S. Pavlov attempted a velvet counterrevolution. Addressing the Supreme Soviet, he demanded extraordinary powers. Without this authority, said he, he could not lead the country out of the economic and political crisis it was experiencing. Had Pavlov gotten what he asked for, Gorbachev would, de facto, have been out. Pavlov failed.

In fact, a few days later, after having had a private one-on-one with Gorbachev, he told that same Parliament that he had been "misunderstood" and that he had not asked for any extra powers whatsoever. Strike one, Mr. Pavlov. But he still has at least two more swings.

--There has been a noticeable consolidation of the most hard-line, conservative forces--not only in the party, the army and the KGB, but also in the Supreme Soviet, where the "Soyuz" group headed by the notorious Col. Viktor Alksnis has been able to marshal 700 deputies under its banner--a substantial increase from the 400 it originally had.

As I measure it, the good news outweighs the bad. But only by a tad. It is really not as much a matter of weight as it is a matter of momentum. It is a situation remindful of the proverbial glass of water: Is it half full or half empty? It depends on what happens next--whether water is added to or taken from the glass. At this precise point in time, water is being added. But it could still go either way.

If Yeltsin does not succeed in stopping the downward trend in people's living standards, if there is no real, tangible progress over the next year and a half to two years, the consequences could be disastrous.

Backed by the Soyuz group, by the military-industrial complex, by the army brass and the KGB, Pavlov could be awarded the powers he "never" asked for, while Gorbachev would quietly be relieved of his. Zhirinovsky, backed by an angry and bitter population, could become a democratically elected president of Russia.

On the other hand, one strong push in favor of the Gorbachev-Yeltsin partnership could not only tip the scales in favor of democracy; it also would force new elections to the Supreme Soviet, thereby washing out the Soyuz people, forcing the resignation of Pavlov and friends, and putting the generals and the spooks exactly where they should be: under the jurisdiction of a democratically elected government.

The G-7 could do worse than give all this some serious consideration.

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