Is Mikhail Gorbachev still in charge of the Soviet Union? If so, does he seek to end dictatorship or to consolidate it? Have the Soviet armed forces quietly assumed control of the country? And do the repressive policies in the Baltics and new difficulties in arms negotiations with the United States reflect military views? Or is there a struggle for power underway with a still uncertain outcome?

At least three views circulate in Washington about who governs the Soviet Union and to what broad ends. Each has important implications for U.S. policy and for the Soviet future, and each offers a plausible interpretation of the same conditions -- repression in the Baltics, the imposition of new centralized economic controls by Moscow, the disappearance of leading reformers from Gorbachev's inner circle, the new obstacles to arms agreements and continued Soviet cooperation in the Gulf war.

In one view, it is believed that Gorbachev has already lost control of policy to the Soviet military establishment. These observers point to the growing role of the military not only in the Baltics but in other important aspects of internal and foreign affairs. They note that the Kremlin's new plan for controlling "economic crime" gives such sweeping police functions to the military that critics are charging it is tantamount to martial law.

Recent unexpected and unexplained shifts in the Soviet position in arms negotiations in Geneva and Vienna are also seen as signaling that generals rather than foreign ministers are now in charge of this important domain. U.S. officials believe that deadlocks in the START negotiations and problems on the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty reflect increased military influence, which, they speculate, may have also precipitated the resignation of Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.

Gorbachev has not resigned, they further speculate, because he is useful to the military and willing to be used -- as when he affirmed that the new police functions are a legitimate expression of the president's emergency powers.

A competing scenario insists that Gorbachev is still in charge -- the deus ex machina of major events in the Soviet Union. In this view, Gorbachev's power is not absolute. Like almost all rulers in almost all systems, he must take account of the interests and demands of various groups in Soviet society. But his power is supreme, they argue. And what happens happens with his permission.

When two dozen people were killed in Latvia and Lithuania, it happened not because Gorbachev ordered their deaths, but because he sent Soviet troops to Latvia and Lithuania to restore order and left it to local commanders to determine how authority should be re-established.

When he denies personal knowledge of this "tragedy," they say, he is seeking to limit his responsibility and the political damage to his reputation. He is not demonstrating that he lacked power to influence events.

In this view, Gorbachev's tactical flexibility is as great as his power. He tries to find solutions to Soviet problems, remembering Lenin's dictum that realism often requires two steps forward and one step back. In that spirit, much as he made limited moves toward a free market to end economic stagnation, he now restores central controls in an effort to offset spreading economic disorganization and total economic breakdown. Gorbachev uses the military as he uses his advisers -- when he needs them, to achieve goals that he seeks.

Some of those who think Gorbachev is in charge have confidence in his ultimate motives and goals. They believe that whatever the specific zigs and zags, he seeks a government based on law rather than force, a productive economy and a good relationship with the West. They think the United States should support him.

Others, like Gary Kasparov, believe repression in the Baltics and elsewhere is the only logical outcome of Gorbachev's efforts to reform, but preserve Communism. Persons holding this view deny that the United States and Western Europe should help Gorbachev in any fashion.

A third scenario depicts a struggle for control that is underway and pits Gorbachev and the reformers against the military and various other partisans of authoritarian government. They see flip-flops in policy as evidence of this tug-of-war.

Each of these scenarios carries its own prediction for the Soviet future.

If the military is already on top, one can expect authoritarian government and current borders to be maintained by force for the foreseeable future. It is unlikely, however, that a serious effort would be made to restore totalitarianism or Communist ideology to their former status.

If Gorbachev is in charge and is loyal to glasnost and perestroika, he can be expected to relax repression in the Baltics and proceed -- perhaps more cautiously -- with limited democratization and measured steps toward self-determination.

If Gorbachev remains in charge while abandoning reform, one can expect that he will govern in cooperation with the military in an authoritarian system.

If a genuine struggle for power persists, disorganization may be expected to grow, with some constituent parts of the Soviet Union successfully breaking away from central control. Eventually someone will succeed in establishing authority and end the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

For now, it is impossible to predict the future of the Soviet Union -- in part because adequate evidence is lacking, and in part because this is the world's first experience with the transformation of a totalitarian state from within.

1991, Los Angeles Times Syndicate