NO SOONER had Eduard Shevardnadze jumped ship than Victor Kryuchkov, Mikhail Gorbachev's man at the KGB, demonstrated what is dangerous about the current heading of Kremlin policy. He topped off an ever darkening series of criticisms of perestroika with an outburst echoing the paranoid style of the Cold War. For practically everything from spoiled imported wheat to the rising tide of "radical nationalists," he blamed foreigners -- foreign intelligence agencies, foreign economic advisers and businessmen, foreign ideas and "sources." All this from the police chief of a regime whose program of rescue for a failing country has until now rested on opening contacts with the West and exploring Western ways.
Whether Mr. Kryuchkov's xenophobic display marks a confirmed new turn will take more than a speech or two to establish. It is sobering to see the general and his kind grabbing for the leading advisory role formerly occupied by liberal Shevardnadze types. Some flux in the Moscow scene is still evident, however, as Mr. Gorbachev struggles to reconcile the conflicting dictates of freedom and order. He is pushing for parliamentary authority to install his Moscow-centered plan for containing the republics in a federal union. Yesterday he criticized the notion of legislative hearings as "the funeral of executive power." But the republics are still very much in the political battle, and resistance to his further empowerment is strong. His choice of restive Moldavia to assert his office's new powers, moreover, engages him on the reformist as well as the reactionary side of the different local issues involved.
A cry is rising in the United States to abandon Mikhail Gorbachev. President Bush is being accused of trying to "save" him -- as though it were in his power to do so. Some urge the president to distribute food aid, if at all, not through the center but through local and regional bodies. Others would go on to isolate Mr. Gorbachev and even to squeeze him and to put Soviet-American ties in the deep freeze.
Obviously the degree of American support for the Gorbachev reform program and, separately, for expanded ties with Moscow depends on a good-faith policy in the Kremlin. The United States cannot for a minute be in the position of making excuses for a crackdown. But Mr. Gorbachev is still the Soviet president, one with an uncertain domestic policy but with a proven international record. He has different political options open to him. Not sentimentality but realism and the plain American interest argue for giving him the space to show he can govern with the consent of the governed. There lies his test -- and ours.