President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, in a revolutionary reversal likely to decisively change the face of Soviet politics, said Saturday that he is willing to accept the existence of political parties that would compete with the Communist Party.
"I see no tragedy in a multi-party system. . . . We shouldn't be afraid of (it)," Gorbachev said at the end of a nearly five-hour meeting with breakaway Communists in the Baltic republic of Lithuania.
But, speaking in response to a question, he warned that a multi-party system would be "no panacea" for the problems facing the Soviet Union and added that he absolutely opposes the split within the Communist Party resulting from the Dec. 20 decision of Lithuanian Communists to declare their independence from the national party.
"We need to think it over a thousand times before we embark on an independent drift with no compass, no map and no fuel," he said. "Today, we need as never before for the progressive forces of society to consolidate."
In the past, Gorbachev has repeatedly and adamantly ruled out permitting the existence of other parties that would compete with the Communist Party, which has held all the reins of power in the Soviet Union since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
He has said unity is the most important thing for the country, and he sharply curtailed debate in the last Congress of People's Deputies, held in December, over amending the constitutional article that guarantees the Communist Party's monopoly on power.
But, in his address Saturday, Gorbachev broke with his previous statements, indicating he believes a multi-party system created with supervision from Moscow would be preferable to such a system being formed republic by republic.
A multi-party system already exists in Lithuania, where the legislature voted last year to end the Communist Party's hold on political power. The republic, one of the most politically active in the union, considers itself to be at the forefront of Gorbachev's policies of reforms, and Lithuanians are largely strong supporters of Gorbachev.
Gorbachev did not say when competing parties would be legalized throughout the country, but he appeared to be urging patience when he said that he does not oppose a multi-party system as long as "it arises as a result of a normal historical process and answers the needs of society."
But he said the existence of more than one party would not ensure democracy as surely as would a government, such as his, founded on the principles of democracy and openness.
In words that seemed aimed directly at Lithuanian nationalists who he believes are pushing for too-rapid change, Gorbachev said that the country must be reformed as a whole, with those eager to move quickly waiting for those who are "lagging behind."
Conflicts between the two groups should be considered natural while the massive country of 15 republics is being so drastically changed by his reform program known as perestroika, he said.
"Those who promise there will be people who could lead this process smoothly and easily--this is nonsense, comrades," he said. "This is fooling the simple people."
Speaking to factory workers Friday about public demands for changes in the Soviet laws to permit numerous political parties, Gorbachev said: "Salvation is not in the number of parties but in the political spirit of the regime. The crux of the matter is whether the people have the power or the parties do, and are simply providing for the personal ambitions of the politicians."
But he added: "If you don't rush things, you will see 1990 is going to be a decisive year in economic, political and social reform, including the reform of our federation. . . . I can tell you, comrades, not a single institution in this country inherited from the past can be included in our new society without substantial changes."
During Gorbachev's three-day visit to Lithuania, officially to try to persuade the republic's Communists to reverse an early unprecedented decision declaring themselves independent from the Soviet Communist Party, the Soviet leader repeatedly found himself in often-heated arguments with Lithuanians who insisted they wanted to form their own country.
Lithuania, followed closely by the other Baltic republics of Latvia and Estonia, has with growing fervor been demanding independence from the Soviet Union, which absorbed the Baltic states in 1940 under a secret pact between Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.
"You are all clamoring for independence. I can see plainly the audience is fired up. And this is the drawback of you, comrades. You can no longer deliberate. You can only declare," Gorbachev told workers in one address Friday. "You have not really thought it out."
"If we embark on a road of division, if we start cutting up and busting things, then I can tell you the worst of times will be our lot," he said.
In the meeting Saturday, the breakaway Communists themselves insisted in no uncertain terms that they would not rejoin the Soviet Communist Party.
"I believe annulling the decision would be the death of the Communist Party of Lithuania," Vasily Yemelyanov, editor of the local party newspaper Sovetskaya Litva, told Gorbachev.
"Not only was Stalinism discredited, but the people completely lost faith in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union," Yemelyanov said.
"It is a pity that our party has split, but we could simply wait no longer. Realities here are such that people have said, 'Enough. We want to be Europeans.' The majority of Lithuanians are ready to sacrifice their material benefits for the sake of independence," he said.
Algirdas Brazauskas, head of the Lithuanian Communist Party, told Gorbachev that his party's decision to declare its independence from Moscow was in keeping with Gorbachev's own policy of reform.
"Perhaps it is not going at the same speed, perhaps it is going in its own way, but it is part of the pluralism of perestroika, " he said of his republic. "Lithuania is headed in the right direction."