MOSCOW -- With his hard-line Communist aides hystericall demanding order at any price and his long-time reformist colleagues quietly helping to organize a non-Communist opposition party, Mikhail S. Gorbachev has a tough choice to make.
The man who for six years has tacked now right, now left, trying to define a centrist route through stormy Soviet political waters, is finding his crew mates split into two bitterly opposed camps.
The two groups are now grappling for the helm, and the approach of Mr. Gorbachev's mid-July meeting with leaders of the seven top industrial powers appears to be bringing the struggle to a climax.
On one side is the law-and-order crowd of KGB chief Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, Internal Affairs Minister Boris K. Pugo and Defense Minister Dmitry K. Yazov -- "the three bogatyrs," as Moscow wits call them, for the combat-happy epic heroes of Russian folklore.
At a closed parliamentary session two weeks ago, the three painted a dire picture of economic disintegration, political anarchy and military disarray.
They hinted strongly that a sinister plot of Western intelligence .. services -- and not, say, old-fashioned Soviet socialist incompetence -- might be at the bottom of it all.
Mr. Yazov whined about the 5 billion rubles that would have to be spent just to destroy nuclear weapons if a strategic arms limitation treaty is completed as expected.
He declared that if republican governments keep on sheltering young men who dodge the Soviet army draft, "our armed forces soon will cease to exist."
Mr. Kryuchkov read a 1977 KGB report on CIA plans and offered the wild suggestion that the current woes are being fomented by Soviet citizens in key jobs who were recruited by U.S. intelligence to subvert the country from within.
"According to the scheme of the CIA, the activity of the agents of influence will facilitate the creation of certain difficulties of a domestic political character in the Soviet Union, hold up the development of our economy, and lead our scientific research into dead ends," Mr. Kryuchkov declared, according to excerpts from his speech published last week.
As often in the past, the conservatives were strong on accusations but weak on programs.
Mostly, they propose restoring order and preserving the empire by imposing a state of emergency enforced by arrests and firepower.
Their economic ideas seem largely to involve a retreat to state control and a vigilant repulse to any offers of Western aid.
On the other side are the social democrats who played a key role in shaping the first years of perestroika, former Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze and reform theorist Alexander N.Yakovlev. They see the root of today's chaos not in reform but in the stubborn grip of the old power structure, and the only way out as multiparty competition and economic ties to the West.
They have linked up with the mostly younger organizers of the handful of still-tiny, anti-Communist parties and are ready to lend their prestige and clout to a united democratic movement. Sooner or later -- the organizers are still arguing about timing -- the movement will become a party, creating a genuine two-party system and ending Communist domination, the organizers say.
Only a new, U.S.S.R.-wide opposition movement can "overcome the crisis in the country, save democracy, and prevent all attempts to relapse to the old order and to a totalitarian regime," Mr. Shevardnadze told the Interfax news agency Friday. Since ++ warning of "dictatorship on the offensive" and resigning last December, he has formed a foreign-policy think tank.
He said that a united front is required to counter reactionaries who have unleashed "a war against the policy of perestroika and renewal, against the new thinking [the policy of detente with the West] and its supporters."
Mr. Shevardnadze remains a member of the Communist Party Central Committee, whose bosses have been outraged by what they see as his treachery. He has been summoned tomorrow to explain himself.
The leaders of the reactionary and reformist camps have little in common other than their mutual mentor: Mr. Gorbachev, as president and Communist Party leader, brought them all to power. Both sides are pressuring him to choose between them, and the choice is fraught with danger.
If Mr. Gorbachev sides with the hard-liners, he may alienate once and for all the vast majority of the citizenry, cut off new relations with the West and face armed rebellion in many republics.
Notably, he will incur once again the determined resistance of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, who received an enormous popular mandate in the June 12 election.
If he sides with the liberals, he may alienate once and for all the Communists still in power in much of the country -- such as the Siberian party bosses who last week issued a statement denouncing Mr. Gorbachev's program as "a slide into capitalism." He will make enemies of the men who control the military and security forces that could literally remove him from power.
His dilemma was dramatized last Wednesday, as Soviet troops occupied the telephone communications station in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, severing the city's communications for more than two hours.
The troops claimed to be looking for weapons, and claimed to have found them -- 17 blocks of TNT, 25 yards of fuse, 90 bullets and a handmade pistol, they said.
Lithuanian officials said that the incident was a crude provocation staged to test republican communications options in the event of a Moscow-backed military coup.
On the surface, the action seemed consistent with Mr. Gorbachev's own presidential order to confiscate arms from unofficial groups. Certainly it was in harmony with the Soviet president's tough anti-independence rhetoric of last winter.
But in political context, the "Black Berets" move was a crude violation of Lithuanian sovereignty, a calculated attempt to frighten the Lithuanians and anger the West on the eve of Mr. Gorbachev's mid-July meeting with Western leaders.
For the first time in months of similar military provocations against the Baltic republics, Mr. Gorbachev reacted -- albeit through a spokesman -- with anger.
"Someone is trying to spoil the atmosphere before the meeting of the president of the U.S.S.R. in London by provocative actions," spokesman Vitaly Ignatenko told Soviet television. Though mild and indirect, the statement was an unmistakable warning shot to the hard-liners that he might break publicly with them.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not coincidentally, the magazine previously edited by Mr. Ignatenko Friday published an unprecedented attack on KGB chief Kryuchkov and his CIA-plot speech. Novoye Vremya (New Times) said that Mr. Kryuchkov should resign or be fired by Mr. Gorbachev.
Former KGB Col. Mikhail Lyubimov, one of the handful of ex-security officials who have openly joined the democratic opposition, told Russian television Friday that Mr. Kryuchkov's speech was designed "to break up the alliance of Gorbachev and Yeltsin and to scare the West."
Mr. Lyubimov denounced what he called his former boss' "narrow, extremist positions" and declared as surprising "such indifference to the fate of one's people for the sake of saving one's position."
"When things are moving toward consolidation and people followed Yeltsin and stand behind the bloc of Gorbachev, Yeltsin and all the republics, Kryuchkov is trying to break it all up," Mr. Lyubimov said.
"He's not even working for the president," he added, but he did not sound entirely certain.
Indeed, Mr. Gorbachev's frequent, outspoken criticism of the democratic reformers with whom he now seems to be allying himself will not be soon forgotten by some of them.
Asked Friday by a reporter whether, as the Soviet press has speculated, Mr. Gorbachev backed the formation of a democratic opposition party, Moscow Mayor Gavriil K. Popov replied acidly: "I have no facts to support such a conclusion, and more than enough facts to refute it. He's general secretary of that other party and continues to work there."