THE deals and concessions made by Mikhail Gorbachev last week may be the first signs of spring in what has been a horrific nine-month economic and political winter in Russia. Much was accomplished at the top level: Mr. Gorbachev cut prices, fashioned a remarkable union pact with nine republics, and opened the door for a new constitution and direct elections of a new Soviet legislature. Most important, he found a rapprochement with Boris Yelstin, who undoubtedly felt that his nemesis Gorbachev was a better Soviet leader than any of the hard-line choices that might step up to replace him.
What Gorbachev may have done, though it is early to tell, is begin a process of shifting back to the center-left. Direct elections would probably result in a more liberal-minded legislature - one that could better set in motion the process of economic reform so needed in Russia.
The hard-liners have not been able to come up with an economic program of their own. Their poverty of ideas and approaches may be showing itself. Certainly, hard-liners have less popular support than liberals.
Moreover, the new pact is with nine, not 15 republics. This is the first time no mention has been made of the traditional 15-member union, and it may be the beginning of a more pragmatic policy of letting the Baltics, Georgia, and other independence-minded republics ease out. For over a year, Gorbachev has sought a new confederation between republics and the union - a proposal that went nowhere last December, but may be finding new life.
Whether price cuts and a new pact can work "on the ground" is another question. Yeltsin can appeal to the striking miners to go back to work. But the national deficits are so great, and the economic and infrastructural disintegration so serious, that only a new national spirit and resolve among Russians can check them.
The path of the hard-liners - an old, centralized command and control economy and the kind of grip on the republics that has led to bloodshed and will lead to more violence if not relaxed - is a bitter path of ruin. It must be exposed and rejected.