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It is a very dangerous moment for the Soviet Union. We are in the same situation as the rest of Europe was in 1946-47 - our economy is totally destroyed; only the black market functions. We are sitting on ruins while our soldiers are selling chewing gum and cigarettes.

The Soviet Union is entering a new "period of stagnation," as the time of Leonid Brezhnev was known, but it will be far worse because it is stagnation following stagnation.There is no going back, yet the military-industrial complex and the bureaucracy stand in the way of any further changes. Things have simply stopped. After five years of perestroika, the military crackdown in Lithuania and the appointment of Gennady Yanayev as vice president have signaled a return to the old style of leadership. Last year, we optimistically spoke about a Marshall Plan. This year we are talking about martial law.

As I warned British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1989, the empire will strike back. And now it has.

The totalitarian system may be dead, but it won't lie down. Military hard-liners may be able to organize a quiet society by stopping demonstrations and rolling back glasnost, but they can't make the destroyed economy work. Indeed, their return may push our society into new and more dangerous times that will lead to Romanian-type results - where people will be forced to kill the powers that be as the only way to effect change. I hope it doesn't come to this.

In such a situation, the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev has turned schizophrenic. Both hostage to the communist system and a product of it, he is afraid to recognize that the system is dead.

Today, Gorbachev is trying to be Salvador Allende and Augusto Pinochet at the same time. The schizophrenic nature of the situation was reflected clearly in the military crackdown in Lithuania. According to the scenario the colonels apparently worked out with the president, the military would move into the Baltics in January to enforce presidential rule. The military moved in and played its role, but Gorbachev didn't play his. Perhaps the public outcry stayed his hand.

In the end, Gorbachev has sided with the apparatus from which he came. But, fortunately so far, he can't seem to find the courage of his convictions. When Gorbachev began perestroika, he had no idea how far the system would unravel. At first, he thought he could reform the system little by little, like an old peasant peeling away the dirty leaves of a cabbage to get to the clean core. But instead Gorbachev found that the core itself was rotten.

He became worried, falling back on the old pillars of stability to fill the vacuum - the military-industrial complex and the Communist Party. While doing more and more to placate the military hard-liners, he still hasn't understood that they will never forgive him for the five years of humiliation and terror they went through - the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the "loss" of Eastern Europe, conventional and strategic arms treaties, a general demotion in social status, sanctioning military action by the United States in the Persian Gulf near Soviet borders.

Gorbachev should understand that much of the military's hatred for the disarmament policies of Eduard Shevardnadze, hatred that finally drove the foreign minister to resign, is directed at him as well.

He doesn't seem to understand that he will be kept in power only as long as the hard-liners need contacts with the West. As soon as those contacts are destroyed, or become unnecessary, they will simply kick Gorbachev out of office and replace him with someone else. For now, Gorbachev plays the useful function of a "human shield."

Insulated by his Kremlin information-handlers, Gorbachev also hasn't yet understood that the country has changed and can't return to the old ways. He may be the boss at the center, but the republics have become power bases beyond his control.

With or without Gorbachev, we face five or six years of slow disintegration ahead. This dismal prospect is a better alternative than civil war, which may well erupt in some regions. But everyone must be realistic. Justifiable as its claims are, Lithuania can't relocate to Nebraska. Independent or not, it must sell its cabbage and potatoes to Russia, not to Sweden. In Eastern Europe, Poland too will have to sell to the USSR because its products won't yet be able to compete in the West.

We may hate one another, but we can't live without each other. We can only climb out of the abyss together. Our situation over the next years will be much like that of Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in the American movie "The Defiant Ones." The white prisoner hated the black prisoner, but connected by chains, they had to escape together or not at all.

After struggling through this period of disintegration of the USSR, perhaps integration of the republics on an entirely new level, based on economic self-interest, will be possible.

Also, I am convinced it is time now to consider the organization of a loyal opposition. Along with myself, several key figures - Shevardnadze, Aleksandr Yakovlev, Moscow Mayor Gavril Popov, Leningrad Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, even academician Giorgi Arbatov - are interested in this idea.

This organized democratic opposition would fight to prevent the previous reforms from being rolled back. We want to restore perestroika to its previous level.

In the old days, fear of the leaders ruled our society. Now, people are becoming fearless and the leaders are full of fear. If Gorbachev can't finish the process he started, others will finish it without him.

In the meantime, the military hard-liners are attempting their last hurrah. Desperate and scared, their aim is nothing less than survival. That is what they are fighting for - not for communism, not for perestroika and not for Gorbachev.

It is a dangerous time. If they kill us off, it won't be good for the West either. If we win with our democratic counterattack, my country will become a part of mankind. And all of humanity will be better off.

1991, New Perspectives Quarterly

Distributed by L.A. Times Syndicate