TAKE SOVIET Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's stunning resignation at his word as a "protest against dictatorship." More Catholic than his pope, he could see his comrade in reform and close friend, Mikhail Gorbachev, coming under relentless pressure from his right to apply measures of coercion and centralization to check the slide into chaos. No doubt Mr. Gorbachev intended by his recent conspicuous backsliding to keep space open for reform. Said Mr. Shevardnadze: If you make a dictatorship, no one can say who will become the dictator. Mr. Shevardnadze is a man of deep insight and courage. He is a public servant visibly frazzled by the pressures of office. Conceivably he is also a son of separatist-minded Soviet Georgia.

The resignation tightens Mr. Gorbachev's political dilemma unbearably. If he leans toward the centralizers, central planners and reactionaries of the old establishment, he risks abandonment by the modernizing democratic market-minded forces he has let flower. If he embraces whole-hearted reform, he risks a counterrevolution, maybe a coup. At best the scene may be marked by elements of civil war, disintegration and anarchy. Whether Mr. Gorbachev can survive, especially if he does not deepen his commitment to reform, becomes conjectural.

A "hurt" Gorbachev pledges continuity in foreign policy. But it takes a leap of faith to believe that a principal architect of the whole Soviet reach to end the Cold War can be removed without some effect on the energy or content of policy. Mr. Shevardnadze was an imaginative and disciplined strategist. His swan song alluded to currents of domestic controversy now swirling around Soviet foreign policy. His patron is weakening, his political base wobbling. Not necessarily a change of course but a phase of uncertainty seems in store.

From a slow start, the Bush administration had come to an unequivocal commitment to the political health of the Gorbachev-Shevardnadze team. It pursued global cooperation with this team even as events sharpened the question of whether it should deal more with democrats, free marketers and republics resisting Kremlin policy. Washington's answer was to split some of the difference: to work on important foreign-policy projects with the central authorities and recently to funnel food aid through them but also to start quietly and anxiously warning them of the dangers of authoritarian ways. The crisis, in its way, is as fraught with dangers for this country as it is for the country where it is occurring.