ANDREI SAKHAROV rightly cautions that Soviet reforms should be assessed with ``open eyes.'' Perestroika, the economic and political restructuring undertaken by Mikhail Gorbachev, regularly brings forth hopeful signs, such as some loosening of emigration laws, and troubling ones, such as plans for tighter press controls. The physicist and human rights activist both supported and criticized Mr. Gorbachev's policies as he met with reporters during his first visit to the United States. This apparent contradiction was not in him, Mr. Sakharov said, but in the complexities of the present situation in the Soviet Union.
``The great danger to the world as a whole would be the failure of perestroika,'' Sakharov said. That failure could very well come from unwise decisions made by the architects of reform. A case in point: Gorbachev's concentration of the powers of Communist Party chief and head of government in one person, his own. That pattern could someday lead to another Stalin, the scientist warns. And what about proposed press laws that would make anyone who operates a computer printer or duplicator liable to prosecution?
Sakharov's balanced critique is instructive to Westerners trying to arrive at the right approach to Gorbachev. Many experts whisper, ``Go slow, remember you're dealing with a repressive system, not one relatively enlightened leader.'' Others, just as expert, urge, ``Seize the opportunity, test Gorbachev's sincerity.''
Within the Western alliance, France, Germany, and Italy are eager to extend lines of credit to the Soviets, thus helping them out of their economic morass. Britain and the US want further concrete evidences of human rights reform first.
Some in the US Congress and elsewhere ask why Western lenders should help the Kremlin provide butter to their citizens when it has shown little inclination to cut back on guns. Debate over such questions will intensify in the months and years ahead, as a new American administration charts out its foreign policy.
The debaters should keep an ear attuned to Sakharov. Few have been more battered by Soviet repression, or more lifted by perestroika. His outspoken criticism of the Afghanistan invasion led to a cruel internal exile in 1980. A phone call from Gorbachev in 1986 released him from the bleakness of Gorky. He has since been elected to the governing body of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and has resumed his insistent calls for release of Soviet political prisoners. His current trip abroad, impossible a few years ago, is itself evidence of Gorbachev's reforms at work.
But Sakharov hasn't simply signed on with Gorbachev. He sees cause for hope in the Soviet leader's actions - which confirm Sakharov's longtime belief that his country is capable of change from within. He also sees disturbing signs, evidence that the old repressive ways won't yield easily.
So by all means encourage perestroika, Sakharov seems to be saying, but take care to point out wrong turns along the way. That's a tricky position for trackers of Soviet reform to maintain, but it is also the most sensible and effective one.