Overshadowed by the steady slide toward war in the Persian Gulf, the internal crisis in the Soviet Union is moving on its own path toward a showdown that could also shake the world.
The latest phase has all the elements of a Shakespearean tragedy for Mikhail Gorbachev. The West in general and the Bush administration in particular have been slow to recognize or acknowledge the speed with which real decision-making is moving out of Gorbachev's hands. But the events of the past few weeks have made that fact inescapably obvious.
On Sept. 11, the Russian Republic's legislature -- representing three-fifths of the country -- gave formal and nearly unanimous approval to radical economist Stanislav Shatalin's plan to move into a fully free-market economy in the next 500 days.
Under immense pressure from his chief rival, Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin, embattled Soviet President Gorbachev that same day endorsed the Shatalin plan in principle -- but declined to embrace it fully.
Gorbachev's prime minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, whose gradualist reforms have been battered by the rapidly deteriorating economy, saw an analogy to Hamlet. Shatalin's proposal to transfer control of the economy from the central ministries in Moscow (which now run four-fifths of the enterprises) to the 15 republics, and from there to individual owners, "endangers the unity of the country," Ryzhkov said. "To be, or not to be, a united government, that is the question."
Sitting in the gallery of the Supreme Soviet, Gorbachev's longtime conservative critic, Yegor Ligachev, ousted from his leadership position last summer by Gorbachev, told The Washington Post's David Remnick, "It's better than Shakespeare."
Certainly, that is true if your motive is revenge, as it must be for Ligachev. It would be easy for him to see Gorbachev as Macbeth, and himself as Banquo's ghost.
Sergei N. Krasavchenko, the chairman of the economic reform committee of the Russian Republic and an ally of Yeltsin's, told The New York Times' Bill Keller that Gorbachev and Ryzhkov "are both afraid of finding themselves out of business," if Moscow formally cedes control of the economy to the republics and to private hands. But, he said, the real danger will come if Gorbachev acts "like King Lear," and refuses to accept his diminished role.
That last comment struck home with me, because of a telling remark I heard from a pro-Yeltsin reformer when I was in Moscow two months ago. Talking about Gorbachev's successful defense of his second title as Communist Party general secretary at the party congress in July, this official said, "The less real power Gorbachev has, the more he clings to the symbols of power."
For all his talk of reform, Gorbachev simply cannot bring himself to accept the decentralization of power that is taking place. Instead of allowing the 15 republics to chart their own paths, he sought to change the Shatalin plan to keep taxation, monetary and foreign exchange authority in Moscow's hands. True, those are powers most central governments control. But after living with the economic inefficiency and privation imposed by 70 years of overly centralized control, the Soviet people are not about to compromise on their demand for decentralization and freedom.
Ryzhkov doesn't get the message at all. On Sept. 15, he went on television to argue for a one-year extension of "emergency" centralized economic controls. But Muscovites, enraged by shortages of tobacco, meat and even bread, responded by escalating their demonstrations and demands for Ryzhkov's ouster. "The stores are empty. The ruble is worth nothing. The government hasn't even succeeded in collecting what would otherwise have been a good harvest," Moscow Mayor Gavril Popov told the demonstrators, confirming what they already knew.
Gorbachev, once again caught in the middle between the people and his protege, Ryzhkov, tried a desperate improvisation on Sept. 16, suggesting a national referendum on the question of selling land to individual owners.
Criticized even by his own supporters for an obvious temporizing tactic, Gorbachev on Sept. 21 veered in the other direction, telling the Soviet parliament he may need expanded personal authority to deal with the economic crisis and to keep the Soviet Union from disintegrating. That was so clearly a confession of weakness, rather than an assertion of strength and purpose, that it impressed no one. Yeltsin dismissed it with one word: "Unacceptable."
On Monday, the Soviet parliament voted Gorbachev that power, but procrastinated again: It approved plans for a transition to a market economy, but gave Gorbachev three weeks to work out a "compromise" on the timetable. Once more, the reformers laughed contemptuously and said they would go their own way.
And that is where matters stand. Only two things are clear. There is no quick, painless solution for the Soviet Union. Its troubles are so deep that a decade of turbulence lies ahead no matter what economic survival plan it attempts.
And for Gorbachev, the tragedy will deepen. Whether it is Hamlet, Macbeth or Lear he is playing, no happy ending is in store.