PARIS -- The Nobel Peace Prize Committee got it half right by selecting M.S. Gorbachev as peace person of the year. But the jurors should have gone all the way and split the prize between Gorbachev and Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia if the aim really is to celebrate the liberation of Eastern Europe.
By prizing Gorbachev and Havel -- or another dissident whose struggle made democracy the only viable alternative when Soviet-imposed tyranny collapsed -- the Nobel Committee would have paid tribute to an important political reality. Freedom for Eastern Europe was not a gift from Moscow. Freedom came as a result of the long and hard struggle led by Havel, Poland's Adam Michnik and others.
This symmetry is important in showing that change belongs to them as well as to Gorbachev. And bringing Havel to Oslo with Gorbachev would hold another important advantage for the Nobel Committee: they would at least have one leader who is beloved by his people and in control of his country.
Okay, I exaggerate. No political leader who has clawed his way to the top of the Politburo, forced the Soviet Communist Party to yield power to the government apparatus he heads and ordered a strategic retreat by the Red Army from its imperialistic adventures abroad lacks in resources or in power. The notion that Gorbachev has become a figurehead is silly. But I suspect that the Nobel Committee made its decision to crown Gorbachev alone because they sense the Soviet leader needs all the helping hands he can get these days. As it did with Lech Walesa, Andrei Sakharov and the Dalai Lama, the committee has tossed a lifeline to an embattled figure in need of moral authority and support from abroad.
The award ceremony in December in Oslo will provide Gorbachev with a splendid platform from which to rally his splintering nation behind him anew. The chaos and misery caused by the transformation unleashed by Gorbachev have spread disillusionment through the Soviet populace and even within the intelligentsia, which had formed the original cutting edge of perestroika.
But by placing Gorbachev in the line of Sakharov and Boris Pasternak, the Nobel Committee makes it harder for Soviet intellectuals to criticize or desert him for being wishy-washy and not combatting Communist rule forcefully enough. Fighting Communist oppression has become a major task for Nobel laureates these days.
The award ceremony also reopens the possibility of a December international circus to distract attention from the lack of bread in wintry Moscow. Gorbachev appears to have originally hoped for a spectacular diplomatic doubleheader that would have begun with him going to Brussels to address NATO's assembled leaders and President Bush going to Moscow later in the month to sign a strategic-arms reduction treaty.
That at least was a scenario tried out on Western journalists by influential Soviet visitors in midsummer. But prospects for such summitry appear to have dwindled as the arms talks dawdled and the Persian Gulf crisis deepened, making a Gorbachev appearance at a NATO jamboree politically inappropriate. Fortunately for Gorbachev, his December calendar now has an appearance in Oslo.
How much time does a Nobel Prize win for one who sits atop an undemocratic government rather than being persecuted by it? Don't be surprised if the answer turns out to be "Not much." Dictators apparently have been deterred from taking harsher action against dissidents who have won the Nobel Prize. But an irate citizenry convinced that a leader's policies are destroying its standard of living is not likely to shrink from abusing a Nobel laureate.
Recent Western visitors to the Kremlin report that Gorbachev himself is keenly aware of his eroding position. "You have the sense of power slipping through his fingers even as you sit and talk to him," said one European official. "Then you go to see Boris Yeltsin" -- as Western officials increasingly do when in Moscow -- "and you have the sense of watching a shark cutting through troubled waters with ease."
This was a year in which the number of credible peace candidates was phenomenal. They included Nelson Mandela, the brave Chinese protesters who took over Tiananmen Square in the cause of democracy, even the city of Berlin. Any of those would have been deserving laureates as well.
The Nobel Committee's choice of Gorbachev honors its instincts and tradition of helping the politically needy. What it does not do is fully honor those who ended Communist rule in Eastern Europe. For that, there would have to be another name on the prize.