The rumors have faded that President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is about to resign, frustrated by his inability to pull the Soviet Union out of its deepening crisis. But real questions remain here about how certain a hold he has on power and about his ability to push through further reforms of the country's political and economic system.
Gorbachev will be tested hard on both issues at a meeting, opening today in the Kremlin, of the Communist Party's policy-making Central Committee. The decisions made there are likely to prove historic.
Tough, fundamental questions are on the agenda--the future of the Soviet Union as a one-party state, its decentralization into a much looser federal system, the possible role of private enterprise in the economy and the character of the party itself--as the committee considers the draft of a new party platform, the party's fundamental policy document.
These questions go to the core of Gorbachev's reforms, collectively known as perestroika, and party officials predict that he will seek to broaden and accelerate the changes, as he has done repeatedly when he has faced previous political crises.
"The party is being asked by the people where it stands, and we must declare ourselves," a Central Committee official commented last week. "Elections will be held in every republic and in virtually every locality this spring, and our Communist Party candidates must be able to say where they stand and why. If they cannot, we will lose the elections. . . .
"Our party's leadership of the country is what is at stake, in terms of its political and moral authority and also at the ballot box. The recent developments in Eastern Europe have left us with very few illusions about the urgency of our reforms."
The political rally that drew an estimated 250,000 people on Sunday to Manezh Square just outside the Kremlin should have dispelled any illusions that remained. The rally was undoubtedly the largest unofficial gathering since the Bolshevik Revolution itself, and the mood was impatient and angry.
In strident tones that drew thundering roars of approval from the crowd, the speakers demanded that the party give up its monopoly on political power--a proposal that Gorbachev will make himself today--and accept a multi-party system.
"This plenum is the party's last chance," populist Boris N. Yeltsin, himself a member of the Central Committee, declared, demanding that Gorbachev and other party leaders talk with the "democratic opposition" about the future of the country. "There must be no monopoly of power. . . . If the party does not share power today, the people will seize it tomorrow."
Gorbachev's proposals to the Central Committee, as reported by Radio Moscow's Interfax news service over the weekend, would bring such changes at the core of the Soviet political and economic system, moves even bolder than those Gorbachev has pushed through so far.
In his address to the Central Committee, the Soviet leader is expected to call upon the party to abandon its constitutional monopoly on power, ending more than 70 years of one-party rule, and to give equal status to private enterprise in a mixed economy, breaking sharply from decades of total state ownership and management of the means of production.
In proposing a "humane democratic socialism," Gorbachev will attempt to get ahead of the rising popular demands for faster and more fundamental changes here, according to Interfax.
As Gorbachev's supporters view the meeting, one of the most crucial in the five years since he assumed the Soviet leadership, success will be measured by the support he wins among the 250 Central Committee members for this next stage of perestroika and for his conduct of the reforms.
But success will also be measured by whether he lays out a strategy capable of dealing with the country's crises, receives sufficient authority to carry it out--and does so.
"Mikhail Gorbachev will be seeking more than a vote of confidence," a senior Soviet editor, himself a Central Committee member, forecast last week. "He has lost momentum in recent months, and we are being pulled back into that quagmire from which he was leading us. We must pull ourselves out and move ahead. For this, Gorbachev must reassert his authority. He simply must."
In a briefing paper prepared for some of those attending the closed-door session as observers, the party portrays the country as facing a worsening economic situation, widespread social discontent and a loss of political confidence, even within the party ranks.
"You can tell that the Gorbachev resignation rumors were rubbish," a Soviet writer said after reading the memo, apparently prepared by Gorbachev with his advisers in a weeklong policy review late last month. "There he is fighting for his reforms, fighting for his vision of the future, fighting to move us forward again."
Yet problems do appear to be multiplying faster than Gorbachev can cope with them--and faster than he can press ahead with his reforms. A leading political commentator of a party newspaper last week openly called the situation in the country a "near-fatal catastrophe."
The Communist Party newspaper Pravda summed up the situation this way in a hard-hitting preface to a debate on the political changes that the country needs:
"Democratization often turns into anarchy. The country and its economy are rocking under the strikes and unprecedented disruptions in transportation and consumer supplies. Innocent blood is being spilled in some parts of the country.
"Did people hope for this when perestroika started? The most discouraging aspect of all, however, is the sight of the central seats of power displaying disheartening irresolution during the crisis."
The ethnic violence in the southern Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, which appears to have galvanized the political leadership in ways that other crises did not, stems largely from what many Soviet analysts interpret as a "systemic failure" of communism, and that collapse is now seen here on multiple levels:
-- The violence in Armenia and Azerbaijan and the separatist movements in the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as in Moldavia and Georgia, threaten the Soviet Union, though a superpower, with its own potential dissolution. Russian nationalism, historically inward-looking and hostile to Westernization, has grown in reaction to the nationalism of others.
-- The economy grew by only 2.4% last year--and, if increased sales of alcohol are subtracted, the growth was probably zero. Planners had counted on at least 4.5% growth to meet consumer demands and to lay the basis for the economic upsurge they hope will come as market forces replace centralized management.
-- Social discontent has grown rapidly, largely due to the shortages of food, consumer goods and housing, and to unemployment--previously rare--in a number of regions of the country and in some sectors of industry. There was an average of 30,000 on strike each day in 1989, serious crimes rose more than 30%, conflicts between ethnic groups have become commonplace in many cities and anti-Semitism is on the rise.
-- The rapid fragmentation of the old political system, a result of its prolonged stagnation and, paradoxically, of the reforms, has left both the party and the government barely able to cope with the other crises. Confidence in the party's ability to lead the country has declined sharply, according to opinion surveys here, and prominent faith healers rank higher than most politicians in terms of credibility.
And, in moves that cheer some and frighten others, protest movements are forcing out of office party and government officials at city and regional levels for malfeasance and corruption. In Volgograd, Tyumen, Sverdlovsk, Chernigov and Karelia, regional party leaders have resigned or been forced out in the last two months. In Leningrad, the former regional party leader, once an alternate member of the Politburo, was expelled from the party Friday for abuse of office.
"The pressure is building out there," a Soviet journalist said after returning from a trip that took him through central Russia and much of the Ukraine. "When people are hungry, they get angry easier, and there is very little food out there. . . . In the elections, we could see governments voted out, willy-nilly, and replaced by reformers. And real trouble could come in early spring when the potatoes and cabbages and carrots are all gone."
Gorbachev, in outlining the proposed party platform, is expected to present a strategy for resolving these and other problems and moving the reforms ahead. He is under pressure to be forceful, to reassert the vision that captured the nation's support so effectively in 1985 and then to act.
"Weakness and helplessness of the (central) power lead to chaos and anarchy," the conservative newspaper Soviet Russia said in a commentary last week, joining the intense political debate under way here. "The political methods of leadership, interaction between the party, the state and the people on the basis of dialogue alone are not yielding the expected effect.
"The democracy of non-governing, if it continues to grow at such a rate, will only make the people's lot worse. . . ."
Despite the importance of the meeting, party officials have tried to minimize expectations of dramatic and immediate changes, wanting to strengthen confidence following the rumors--all firmly denied--that Gorbachev might step down as the party's general secretary but remain as president to focus his attention on national issues.
"No enormous surprises," a senior Western diplomat predicted last week after meetings with two top party officials. "I do not expect dramatic developments, but more progress toward perestroika. The point the leadership is making is that there will be no going back on perestroika, that its course is set, but they do acknowledge there are a lot of problems to be dealt with."
But the sweep of the changes that Gorbachev is proposing in the character of the party, in the structure of the Soviet political system and in the underlying principles of socialism here are, in themselves, quite dramatic.
And the Kremlin meeting has its own inherent drama since Gorbachev is under mounting pressure to make perestroika work as people thought it would, improving their lives and giving them a real voice in their government.
"Gorbachev has had five years, and I don't think he should have five more minutes," an angry homemaker, standing in one of Moscow's ever-longer lines for meat, said last week. "He is wonderful at politics but terrible at economics. Democracy is good, peace is wonderful, but we need meat on the table too. Everybody says that, absolutely everybody."
Everybody indeed is now saying that, and Gorbachev's reforms are under increasing attack from both the left and the right, largely because perestroika has failed to meet popular expectations. His own leadership consequently is being subjected to unprecedented public scrutiny and direct criticism, and his stature, so high abroad, is diminished at home.
Conservatives argue with growing boldness that Gorbachev has undertaken too much, that his reforms have departed from the basics of socialism and that the nation's strength, particularly its economy, must be restored before further reforms are attempted, if at all.
The conservatives get support less from the entrenched bureaucrats at the center of the party and government than from an emerging coalition of regional leaders, labor unions, Russian nationalists and committed Marxists.
The left, within the party and among radicals outside of it, contends that the country's problems stem from half-measures, notably in the economy, and that Gorbachev has compromised too much in his effort to maintain a consensus for the reforms.
More resolute action, they say, is required to break through the present deadlock, and they are calling for Gorbachev to be given greater powers as president in order to do so.
The politicking has been intense over the past two months as those wanting such major changes as the party's abandonment of its constitutional monopoly on power or the inclusion of privately owned and operated enterprises within a mixed economy maneuvered furiously in the press and in party committee rooms with those who hope to roll back previous reforms as well as defeat new ones.
Recent opinion polls have shown that 30% of the people support more radical reforms, according to Nikolai P. Popov of the National Public Opinion Research Center, and that a further 25% to 30% want continued but moderate reforms. In contrast, 8% of the country remains extremely conservative, wanting a return to past policies, 25% favors changes in the old system to make it work better, and the middle ground is occupied by 10%.
Liberals read such figures as a mandate to press ahead, but party officials say that when people are questioned further on specific reforms and the means of carrying them out, the solid backing that Gorbachev appears to have is quickly reduced.
"Everybody agrees we are in a mess, and most agree that perestroika is our best bet to get out of it," a party official said. "Unfortunately, that's where agreement ends. Which reforms, when, how fast, how far, how radical--on these questions there is a shifting consensus at best."
Some key decisions will have to be made, however, as the Central Committee considers the draft of the new party platform, which is scheduled to be published for debate before a party congress next October.
Gorbachev may also move, however, to consolidate his political position, retiring more of his critics from the Central Committee and perhaps even the Politburo in order to replace them with active supporters of his reforms.
While he commands a majority within the Central Committee, the sharp criticism he encountered at a meeting of the body in early December brought a threat of resignation, according to participants. This has become a sharp reminder of his vulnerability, still just a potential but again very visible.
"I am not exaggerating when I say that the future of perestroika is at stake," Alexander K. Kurbanov, a Leningrad social scientist and avowed Gorbachev supporter, commented. "This is the Central Committee plenum that will decide what platform the party's candidates run on, what program will be put before the nation for debate, how the congress will be organized, maybe who the organizers will be. . . .
"Dull stuff, you may say, but these decisions will shape perestroika and probably determine whether we emerge from this crisis and rebuild our economic and political system."