MOSCOW, JUNE 14 -- In the days since his return from the Washington summit, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has struggled to regain his initiative and sense of balance with a series of political compromises. Suddenly, the Soviet leader is once more a study in transformation.
In just a short period, he has broken the impasse with the Baltic republics, allowed the possibility of a unified Germany's membership in NATO, sponsored a radical decree on the creation of a market economy and even made peace with the one politician in the country who challenges his standing and sets his teeth on edge -- Boris Yeltsin.
Occasionally, Gorbachev even gets a break, a little time to breathe. Today, the legislature did him the tremendous favor of putting off for at least two months the reform measure that has most infuriated the Soviet public -- a plan to triple the price of bread starting July 1.
When Gorbachev was in Washington, Minnesota and California earlier this month, he was once more the object of adulation. His reception was like that of a fifth Beatle. But he also faced a White House and mass media that spoke of Gorbachev in dark terms of political collapse, rivalry and instability.
The lag between image and reality may have been many months too long, but the West has finally come to understand that Gorbachev faces far deeper crises than he did a couple of years ago. A kind of free-floating anger in Soviet society -- anger at the lack of food, a miserable medical system, the persistence of the Communist Party's domination of power -- has eclipsed any euphoria there might have been here surrounding Gorbachev and his program of reforms.
That anger has produced a wide-ranging populism in Soviet society, a politics of resentment.
Yeltsin has been able to harness such anger from one end of the political structure, and there are still those who worry that the former Moscow party chief will put personal ambition ahead of reformist politics. On the other end of the spectrum, the new Communist Party leadership of the Russian republic, dominated by disgruntled local party chiefs and what can best be described as Marxist fundamentalists, has created a populist challenge on the right.
For months now, a younger generation of reform-minded politicians and intellectuals has wondered whether Gorbachev has finally reached his limits, whether he is no longer capable of abandoning the party's old guard and embracing the cause, the ambitions and the vocabulary of the "new wave" as his own.
Gorbachev did not completely dispel these worries this week. It is still unclear how he will handle the coming crisis within the Communist Party at the party's national congress next month. Will he insist on party unity at all costs and stay allied with party conservatives such as Yegor Ligachev? Or will he risk splitting the party of Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev to make common cause with the party's radical-reform wing, Yeltsin's populists and the growing numbers of non-party "democratic forces"?
"We are all hoping for the latter, for a miracle," said Alexander Tsipko, a philosopher who until three months ago was an official in the international department of the party's policy-making Central Committee. "This is the party's last chance to remake itself, and so much of our future depends on which way Gorbachev moves."
Which is why Tsipko and many other party and non-party politicians find the past week so encouraging. In one afternoon meeting of the Federation Council, a presidential advisory body composed of the leaders of the Soviet Union's 15 constituent republics, Gorbachev managed to build bridges to the two forces that had come to resent him most deeply: the Baltic republics and Yeltsin.
After the meeting, Yeltsin was positively aglow, telling members of the Russian legislature that he and Gorbachev had "met each other halfway." Just a few weeks ago, Gorbachev was so anxious about the prospect of Yeltsin as president of the Russian republic that he took the extraordinary step of addressing the Russian legislature at great length on Yeltsin's "betrayal of socialist principles" and in oblique support of Yeltsin's old-guard rivals for the job.
"One of the best things that could happen in Soviet politics now is a combination of Gorbachev's capabilities as a leader of reform with Yeltsin's mass popular support," said Vyacheslav Shostokovsky, rector of the Higher Party School and co-chairman of the Democratic Platform group of party reformists.
Yeltsin's election may have been a personal embarrassment for Gorbachev -- after all, the Soviet leader did dismiss him from the party leadership in 1987 -- but it has nudged him toward three critical shifts.
"Yeltsin's good relations with the Baltic states made it clear to Gorbachev that the leadership had to make compromises and get going on negotiations," said Estonian legislator Igor Gryazin. Now, Moscow seems ready to begin lifting its economic embargo against Lithuania and to begin negotiations after a freeze on implementation of the Baltic declarations of independence.
Second, the Russian republic's declaration of sovereignty has hastened Gorbachev's need to reshape the political relationships between the republics and the Kremlin. At the Federation Council meeting he drew smiles from Yeltsin as he described a Treaty of the Union in which Moscow would cede power to the various "sovereign socialist states."
Finally, Yeltsin's rise to power represents, in large part, the disgust of the Russian people, their resentment of a reform program that has produced a legislature and a cultural revival -- but no sausage, no vegetables, no shoes. Yeltsin's election must have been a factor in making clear to the government that the public, despite its confusion about the realities of a market economy, could not accept hesitation. And so, at the risk of embarrassing Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, the author of the original economic plans, Gorbachev pushed through more radical plans.
There is still conservative resistance with which Gorbachev must be concerned. Ligachev told a gathering of peasants this week that "the party and the state are now facing a great threat, and our Soviet federation is being ripped apart. If we keep making concessions, one after another, we may lose everything."
But if Gorbachev's "concessions" this week are a signal, he may have begun to show where he will stand in the months ahead.