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Gorbachev needs proof that risk-taking pays off. Superpower leadership on the line at summit. Reagan and Gorbachev approach their talks politically weakened and struggling with their nations' economies. Both are hoping for achievements that will restore some lost luster to their political standings at home.

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The superpower summit is not happening at the best of times for Mikhail Gorbachev. For the first time since he became Soviet leader, his grip on power is under question in some quarters of Soviet society. His country is bracing for several years of economic changes, which are expected to bring price rises, a production slowdown, and perhaps even negative economic growth.

This means he will want to achieve at least two things in Washington. One is very tangible: the signing of an intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) accord. The other is less tangible, but also highly important: to project himself to the West and his own people as an outward-looking, persuasive, and successful leader.

In the long run, major cuts in nuclear weaponry will yield important savings and allow the Soviet leadership to shift industrial resources from defense to the civilian sector. In the shorter term, a breakthrough in arms control will help prove the radical reformers' contention that risk-taking in policymaking pays off. In the case of arms control policy, Soviet officials say, Mr. Gorbachev took risks with his earlier moratorium on nuclear tests and some of his current concessions on INF. In domestic policy, Gorbachev is taking risks with his push for fast, radical transformation of the Soviet economy. Not all the leadership is happy with risk-taking; many seem concerned that the risks may ultimately prove counterproductive.

The summit will be important for Gorbachev's political standing at home. Public opinion plays a much less important role in the Soviet Union than it does in the West, but it has become a factor in Soviet politics under Gorbachev. Significant segments of Soviet society are beginning to voice doubts that Gorbachev has the full support of more conservative Communist Party leaders, notably Yegor Ligachev, No. 2 on the ruling Politburo.

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