CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- Every day at 1 p.m. a crowd gathers at Harvard's Russian Research Center -- American Sovietologists, Soviet scholars and Russian emigres -- to watch the main Soviet news program, "Vremya," ("Time") live by satellite. When Vremya broadcast the meeting of the newly elected Supreme Soviet of Georgia, I exulted. At last my tormented country had made a real step toward sovereignty and independence! But the others watching were more than cool.

In some desperation, I hunted out a meeting of visiting Ukrainian economists discussing, elsewhere on campus, their own republic. I told them what had just happened in Tblisi. The audience greeted my words with warm applause, especially after I wished the Ukrainians the same victory.

But why was the first group so lukewarm? Do they not represent the most progressive American and Russian intelligentsia? Indeed, they do, but the fact is that Russians still feel uncomfortable with the dissolution of their empire. It hurts their patriotic feelings. They still dislike "those Georgians" -- arrogant troublemakers.

As for Americans, the destruction of the Soviet Union is being viewed by the public with increasing fear, which is amplified by the press and nourished by the administration. To official Washington, instability in the Soviet Union is dangerous to the U.S. national interest. The assumption on the Potomac is that stability in Russia is based on strong centralized power, more precisely, President Gorbachev's power.

The Bush administration puts all its eggs in Gorbachev's basket because all 30,000 Soviet nuclear warheads are also in this basket. Fearing disorder and chaos, it pays only lip service to the republics' quest for sovereignty. The ordeal of this difficult choice is reflected in Stephen S. Rosenfeld's article "Our Business in Moscow" {op-ed, Nov. 16}.

Let's assume that this choice suits American national priorities. Who has yet proven that by supporting centralized power instead of the republics, the United States strengthens stability? As the Russian proverb says, "The fish rots from the top."

To be honest, the republics themselves are not blameless. If stability without democracy creates dictatorship, democracy without stability creates anarchy.

Here I insert some personal notes. I know the new Georgian president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. I was privileged to know his father, Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, the greatest Georgian novelist. The first steps of the new non-Communist parliament and government show that they accept and understand responsibility; they are ready to blend the courses of independence and democracy, which unfortunately do not always coincide.

It is no secret that the Soviet Union is experiencing a deep economic crisis. The Bush administration finds in it an additional reason to support the central authorities in Moscow. But again, who has proven yet that the best way to help us is to channel money, food, and consumer goods through the center and wait until this help trickles down to the republics? Instead of help going to the the sinking "Titanic" (the union), it must go to the passengers in the lifeboats (the republics). This approach has an additional advantage: it makes sure the help reaches the truly needy and doesn't prop up the old, bankrupt, centralized structures.

The new Gorbachev plan of radical reorganization of the Soviet government is unworkable. The federation council, made up of the elected leaders of the republics, is envisaged as a new presidential Cabinet but is already a paper tiger. Six republics have already said they will not participate in this council. Eight, including Russia say they will not sign the draft of Gorbachev's union treaty. Even if they all participate and sign, who can guarantee it will work? Would 50 American governors brought to Washington govern better?

The only unequivocal support for the new plan comes from the six Moslem republics. Moslem fundamentalism, which was once regarded as communism's archenemy, now supports the remnants of communism in the U.S.S.R.

The choices that face Washington are not easy, but they cannot be made easier if Washington is hooked up only to Moscow like the TV set at the Russian Research Center.

The writer, a political columnist with Izvestia for 40 years, is currently a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.