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Who's in charge in Soviet Union?

Who's in charge here? On that answer many things depend, including the prospects for real reform in the Soviet Union and relations with the West. The probable answer is that President Mikhail Gorbachev is still in charge _ but not entirely. Soviet troops again surrounded the Lithuanian parliament last week just as he was about to take off for Oslo, Norway, to receive the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize and plead for major Western help to transform the Soviet economy.

There could have been no worse time to be beating up on a small Baltic republic stubbornly seeking its independence. And it was only the latest of a series of troop attacks on Lithuanian installations that go back to January, when 13 people were killed in a sudden crackdown by Soviet black berets.

What prompted the recent release of an official report whitewashing Soviet troops and blaming the Lithuanians? Diplomats go on to point out that while Gorbachev has mildly deplored the January crackdown, the military commander in Lithuania has never been removed or even reprimanded.

And while Gorbachev was trying to convince the United States and other Western powers that he is really committed to fundamental change, what prompted Prime Minister Valentine Pavlov to do just the opposite Wednesday by again charging that the West has imposed a credit blockade on the Soviet Union? That came just when Soviet officials had almost explained away Pavlov's earlier outburst in February that Western banks were plotting to bankrupt the country.

Who's in control? Everybody or nobody?

The latest action in Lithuania may well have been another attempt by military and Communist Party hard-liners to undermine the whole reform process. The diplomatic speculation is that Gorbachev may not feel strong enough to reprimand them.

The alternative is that he quietly approves of the Baltic crackdown. But that hardly seems credible at a time when he has done everything he can to talk himself into next month's G-7 meeting of the leaders of the world's most industrialized democracies. Nor does it make sense when he hopes to meet President Bush here if not by the end of June then by the end of July.

I've spent the past week getting around Moscow not by limousine or taxi but by walking or getting on and off the buses and subways jammed with ordinary people for whom life here is hard, boring and sometimes brutish.

To make lives better, Gorbachev needs the massive help he is seeking to carry out the economic reforms. But is he strong enough or determined enough to adopt and carry them out? Last September, he signed on to what appeared to be a real reform program only to back away under right-wing pressure.

Will he now really get behind the plan that economist Grigori Yavlinski is putting together with a couple of Harvard professors? The joke about Gorbachev is that he has a hundred economic advisers like Yavlinski and that one is an economist.

Who are these shadowing somebodies who are trying to act as spoilers? Some military officers certainly, part of the KGB, much of the party bureaucracy. But outsiders can't really know too much about what's really happening. In Plato's allegory of the cave, the prisoners inside had to guess the reality of what was happening outside by the shadows reflected on its walls.

We're about in the same position here.

The main event this week is expected to be the election of Russia's first elected president, and the odds-on favorite is Boris Yeltsin, the man who has been Gorbachev's chief rival. Russia is half, and by far the better half, of the Soviet Union.

Yeltsin espouses radical democratic and economic reform. He has been telling voters that he lives, eats and wears just what they do, rejecting the perks most Communist leaders live by. Strongly opposed by the military hard-liners, he is nevertheless the overwhelming favorite among the five other candidates, and only former Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov is a major contender. He seems to be the Communist Party favorite and argues for a slower pace of reform.

As the election approaches, some observers predict that Yeltsin may not win an absolute majority on the first round. If not, then there will have to be a runoff in two weeks.

Public opinion polls are in a still suspect infancy, but one recently showed Yeltsin dropping from 60 to 44 percent approval and Ryzhkov rising from 23 to 31. Another showed Yeltsin down from 60 but still with 53 and Ryzhkov with only 7.

Few people doubt Yeltsin eventually will win, and if so, what to watch for is whether his April 13 political truce holds with Gorbachev. Some predict the two men will resume their open power struggle. But their agreement, followed by an agreement by Gorbachev and the leaders of eight other of the Soviet Union's 15 republics, seems to offer the best hope of real economic and political reform.

A new union treaty giving the republics more powers and the central government fewer is almost completed. The question is whether Gorbachev will resist the pressure against radical reform any better this time than he did in September. If not, he probably won't get his Western aid. Who knows where the retreat would stop.

P.S. When Russia is electing its new president on Wednesday, Leningrad will be holding a non-binding referendum on whether to return to the name it bore for 211 years _ St. Petersburg. Gorbachev strongly opposes it.