NEWS ANALYSIS : Another Soviet Coup Likely and--Some Say--Welcome : Politics: Desire for a 'strong hand' is growing, observers report. It could be either progressive or fascist.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Again, the talk in Moscow is of a coup d'etat.

It will come, people say, in late winter when the potatoes will have run out and store shelves are completely bare.

And this time, the coup will be welcomed, according to these predictions, for patience with democracy will have been exhausted by its failure to pull the country out of its profound crisis.

The desire for a "strong hand" is growing already, political commentators argue, and the only debate is whether it would be progressive or fascist in character.

Two months after the defeat of the conservative putsch, the democrats have all but dissipated the political energy that came from their victory, and the country again appears unable to carry out decisive changes.

A reconstituted Supreme Soviet, the country's legislature, will convene today with even its leadership uncertain as to which republics will send delegations, what its agenda will be and what powers it has. It may not even have the quorum necessary to meet.

A treaty establishing an economic community was signed Friday by eight republics amid much fanfare, but none of the 17 implementing agreements have been completed, and no overall reform program has been adopted.

And day-to-day politics have turned into a running brawl as the August victors battle one another for power and squabble over who will get the Communist Party's choicest offices, its highly profitable businesses, its most luxurious resorts.

Life meanwhile is getting harder in every tangible way with the rapid disintegration of the economy.

Although the harvest has just been completed, food shortages are severe. Inflation is more than 300% on an annual basis, and factories are running out of cash to pay workers. Fuel stocks in most cities are only 50% to 80% of what is needed for winter. Overall, the economy is certain to shrink at least 17.5% this year--and 20% would bring complete paralysis.

To many, another coup seems inevitable in such circumstances, and the democrats' victory was so squandered that the "never again" declared with such determination after the August putsch has become a prediction of "more than probable" for late this winter.

The country, in fact, is heading toward a classic "revolutionary situation" in which the authorities can no longer resolve mounting political and economic problems and the people can no longer tolerate the aggravating crisis, according to the KGB's top political analysts.

Social discontent is already rising. In St. Petersburg, residents seized cabbages that farmers were refusing to sell for rubles, regarding the Soviet currency as worthless. In the industrial center of Perm, there have been riots over rationing of sugar and vodka. In Moscow, transport officials complain of riots by passengers on trolley buses caught in traffic jams.

Although opinion surveys continue to show about 50% to 55% for "democracy" compared to 35% to 38% for a "strong hand," they report a growing crisis of confidence in the ability of the country's leaders--Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and other republic presidents--to solve the problems democratically.

"I don't think that a new putsch is impossible," Arkady Volsky, deputy chairman of the committee managing the Soviet economy, commented last week. "Far from it. The main problem is there are too many disagreements among democrats."

Even Gorbachev, struggling to preserve the Soviet Union's political and economic unity, confessed in a television interview that he feels the country is "again facing very serious danger, the same as after the August putsch," because of the political leadership's inability to match deeds with words.

The food shortages are particularly serious, Gorbachev said, for they threaten the whole economic transformation.

But the changes since August make the situation far more complex.

With most of its republics asserting their independence, the Soviet Union no longer exists as an integrated state, and the failure, say, of Ukrainian nationalists to come to terms with each other makes it impossible for the Russian Federation and the Ukraine to agree on fundamental issues.

The national crisis of confidence meanwhile grows. According to the National Center for the Study of Public Opinion, fully 50% of Russians doubt that the country's leadership can find a way out of the crisis.

But who would launch a coup, particularly in the wake of the failure of the August putsch? Political commentators are uncertain, even as they speculate about the possibilities.

The military has "no taste" for politics, it is argued; the KGB security organization is being broken up; the military-industrial complex is losing its grip on the economy, and the Communist Party is all but dissolved, despite nearly three-quarters of a century in power.

But a coup might be led, commentators speculated, by second-echelon officials of the army, the KGB and the Communist Party, men who did not support the August putsch but who would now feel that it is necessary to "consolidate" the gains of perestroika, as Gorbachev's reforms are known, and stabilize the country's political and economic situation.

They would declare their intention to prepare for future advances, it is said, but their real goal would be reclaiming power.

Yeltsin, arguing last week for a six-month postponement of regional and local elections, said that the "opposition" and "revanchists" would win, defeating liberal reforms, if the polls went ahead in December. The Russian Federation legislature rejected Yeltsin's contention and ordered the elections to proceed; Yeltsin then vetoed the resolution, leaving everything uncertain.

Yeltsin's own position was much weaker than two months ago. With considerable critical comment this weekend on his first 100 days as the Russian Federation president, the disappointment in his leadership and plain discouragement about the future were evident.

The talk of a "coup," in fact, reflects the inability of almost the entire nation to work its way out of the collapse of the Soviet political and economic system, to lay out a program of reform and recovery and even to imagine what the path to a post-Communist society might be.

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