The selection of Mikhail Gorbachev as winner of the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize is a watershed event of dramatic significance to the world.

Undoubtedly, there are people of diverse political philosophy who will be greatly distressed that Gorbachev will stand next to such illustrious previous winners as Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Schweitzer and even another Soviet winner - Andrei Sakharov.Yet awarding the Nobel Prize to Gorbachev does not mean the Soviet Union has become a paradise, that communism is somehow thereby validated or that its past crimes are forgotten. The two superpowers continue to bristle with nuclear weapons.

Still, there are some very good reasons why Gorbachev was selected.

First if all, the genesis of the sweeping changes that have astonished the world this past year clearly can be laid at his doorstep. The seeds were planted soon after he came to power in March 1985 with the acknowledgment that the entrenched communist system was failing.

He launched perestroika - the reform program that revolutionized the Soviet Union's foreign and domestic policies. And even though Gorbachev's position at home is still tenuous because of a worsening economy and the waning of Communist Party power, his policies with respect to the world remain laudatory.

He sounded a clarion call for reducing global tension and led the way toward treaties slashing conventional and nuclear forces.

He withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan, freed the Soviet press and created more powerful legislative bodies in the Soviet Union.

In Oslo, the Nobel Committee cited him for "greater openness" in Soviet society, a slowing in the arms race, and the freedom of Eastern European nations.

Gorbachev's reforms have have not only led to the rout of communist regimes from Eastern Europe, they have threatened the once unshakable communist system in his own country.

The Soviet Union is less Soviet and less Union. Along with a growing commitment to a free market economy, the political structure is shaky. The three Baltic states have made bids for their pre-war freedom and declarations of independence or sovereignty have been announced by most of the remaining 12 Soviet republics, including Russia, the largest.

It seems safe to say that Gorbachev had no idea what kind of incredible changes his policies would unleash. Clearly, he embraced a program of change in his country because he candidly recognized the practical failures of communism to effect an efficient and productive economy.

Yet he had the grace to accept the domino effect his changes had on the world. The destruction of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany never could have occurred without Gorbachev's blessing.

The fact that political analysts can declare that "The Cold War is over" - with the West and the principles of freedom clearly in the saddle - has to be credited to Gorbachev. It was his decisions that made it possible.

There is no question that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee acted wisely by giving the award to an unusual world leader who deserves it.