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To avoid collapse, Soviet Union needs Marshall Plan approach

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has just about talked his way into the best party in town, the annual summit meeting of the world's most industrialized democracies next month in London. Last week, France and Germany added their voices to those of Italy, Canada and Japan in favor of inviting the Soviet leader to the July 15-17 meeting, making it almost unthinkable for a heretofore reluctant Bush and British Prime Minister John Major to turn him down.

Although Bush insists that he hasn't yet decided, the upbeat comments after his meeting Friday in Washington with Gorbachev's envoy, Yevgeny Primakov, appeared to pave the way for the sought-after invitation. The fear of being stampeded into too hasty action on aiding the Soviet Union should not be enough of an excuse to refuse him.

What Gorbachev is asking for is a program of massive aid that can only be compared in size and scope to the Marshall Plan the United States offered the destroyed countries of Europe after World War II.

Now is not the time to nit-pick to death his plea for help with a lot of technical objections. He is almost certainly right in arguing that it's in the best interests of the world to help him save himself and the Soviet economy to make way for a new and more democratic Soviet Union.

The nightmare scenario is economic collapse, a military takeover and a civil war in which central authorities could lose control of the Soviet Union's formidable nuclear arsenal.

None of this means that the industrial democracies have to pour more water into the sands where much of the past aid to the Soviet Union seems to have vanished. Gorbachev wasn't prepared or willing to adopt real reforms.

The Soviet Union has come up with yet another plan that International Monetary Fund experts conservatively estimate would cost from $20-billion to $30-billion. Its principal author is Grigory Yavlinski. He has been working with a couple of Harvard economists to refine it, and Bush and Secretary of State James Baker have now heard about it from Primakov.

Gorbachev seems to be willing not only to let the donors help draw up the plan but also to allow international agencies to monitor how it is carried out. If so, that will be another parallel with the Marshall Plan, which between 1948 and 1952 helped finance the recovery programs of 16 European nations.

What still has to be answered is whether Gorbachev has the political will, or the power, to carry out the reforms the United States and other outsiders think are necessary. They would come pretty close to allowing outsiders to dictate the Soviet Union's economic and political future.

After being dragged to the edge of real free-market reforms last fall, Gorbachev suddenly backed away and sided with the hard-liners, calling for a crackdown instead. When that didn't work, he appeared to be on the ropes.

A month ago, he reversed himself again by coming to a tentative agreement on reform with the leaders of nine of the 15 Soviet republics, including his chief rival, Boris Yeltsin of Russia.

The past year is littered with Gorbachev's unfulfilled orders, promises and threats. This time, more than his word that he will do something is necessary. And it may be he will do only what he thinks he has to do. Never before has he seemed to have had a great vision of what the Soviet Union should become, let alone a blueprint.

Even before he determined to go to the July summit meeting in London, Gorbachev was trying talk his way into the next U.S.-Soviet summit meeting with Bush, and the way for that was cleared Saturday in talks between Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh. The two leaders were scheduled to meet next February until the Soviet Union was seen to be cheating on the accord to scrap the bulk of the non-conventional weapons in Europe.

Whether Gorbachev was a party to that or not, the Soviet armed forces simply transferred three divisions with all their weapons from the army to the navy. Some Soviet officers argue that they are the counterpart to three U.S. Marine divisions and that their duty is to protect the three big Soviet bases in the Baltic and Barents Seas.

Saturday's agreement on that dispute clears the way for Bush and Gorbachev to meet, possibly even before the London summit.

Whether or not they do, Bush's hemming and hawing over Gorbachev's invitation to the London summit casts doubt on whether the Soviet president has the rare blend of caution and initiative needed to help keep the Soviet Union from disintegrating.

In any case, independence is almost certainly coming for the three Baltic states, Georgia and others on the Soviet fringes. The biggest danger lies in a military backlash provoked by the breakdown of civil power in Moscow.

It may be that nothing can prevent an economic collapse, but the best chance lies in a Marshall Plan effort and the best man around to preside over it still seems to be Gorbachev.