Mikhail S. Gorbachev's recent nationwide referendum was a flop that resolved nothing. Yesterday produced even more embarrassments. Despite a stern ukase prohibiting demonstrations and the massing of more than 50,000 police and troops to enforce it, the Kremlin leader proved unable to prevent tens of thousands of activists from rallying in support of Boris N. Yeltsin, his arch-rival.
Things do not look good for President Gorbachev. Accusing him of betraying his reform ideals, most of his erstwhile supporters have already fled to the Yeltsin camp. To compensate for those defections and to strengthen his base, Mr. Gorbachev has been trying to placate the Communist Party, the KGB and the military. But his recent tactical errors have given rise to a general sense of government impotence. Even conservative elements are becoming increasingly critical of Mr. Gorbachev.
Meanwhile, dangerous polarization escalates throughout the nation. Most significantly, the mass movement coalescing around Mr. Yeltsin is becoming uncompromisingly anti-Communist.
Mr. Gorbachev's inability to prevent a demonstration is one thing. Another -- and far more ominous loss of influence -- is the crippling miners strike which started March 4. About 200 of the Soviet Union's 580 mines have been affected, idling huge numbers of industrial plants. In contrast with previous labor stoppages in the Soviet Union, economic demands are not paramount to these strikers. They demand getting rid of Mr. Gorbachev, his government and his Communist Party.
"We fight for Yeltsin, but we don't believe that he can change anything quickly . . . But we have to get rid of the Communists. It's our only chance," declares Viktor Filomonov, a striking Siberian coal miner. "Six years of perestroika and I have to buy my shorts on the black market. The Communists have made us beggars and nothing can happen until they go."
Meanwhile, the economic chaos is worsening. Inflation is out of control. Foreign debt is estimated at $60 billion and unpaid suppliers abroad are balking at further deliveries. Real gross national product may decline by 15 percent this year. Many food staples are in such a short supply that famine is seen as a real possibility.
Even though yesterday's demonstrators were not allowed anywhere near the Kremlin, their ability to rally at all must be seen as a symbolic victory for the pro-Yeltsin forces. The stalemate continues. For the first time, Mr. Gorbachev has been forced to admit publicly that his government relies on force rather than on popular support. That points to a serious erosion of power.
In contrast, Mr. Yeltsin's cause is gaining stature. He should be able easily to defeat the Communist reactionaries' attempt to oust him. That victory, in turn, will pave the way for Mr. Yeltsin's direct election to the presidency of the Russian republic, giving him a popular mandate Mr. Gorbachev has never dared to seek.