Mikhail S. Gorbachev, taking a calculated gamble, moved Wednesday to derail the political career of his nemesis, Boris N. Yeltsin, by accusing the maverick Communist of betraying socialism and advocating "the breakup of the Soviet Union" in his attempt to become leader of a more powerful Russia.
In an episode of high Kremlin drama, the Soviet president took the floor for the first time at the Russian Congress of People's Deputies for an impassioned, occasionally angry, speech. It was a definite risk on Gorbachev's part, since past efforts to discredit Yeltsin have blown up embarrassingly in the Soviet leadership's face.
The brassy-voiced populist, the only avowed candidate for the Russian federation presidency and the idol of millions, had delivered a well-received address in the Russian legislature Tuesday, calling for it to wrest control of the republic and its vast natural and human resources from the centralized Soviet bureaucracy.
The country's top-heavy political system, Yeltsin charged, "continues to cling to life though its time has passed, and it has hurt Russia most of all." He said the Russian federation, which stretches from Finland to the Pacific Ocean and embraces more than half of the Soviet population and three-quarters of its land mass, should have the final say over which national laws and decrees apply to it.
After Yeltsin's speech, rumors swept the cream-hued hall in the Grand Kremlin Palace that Gorbachev would be forced to intervene to salvage the chances of the Communist Party leadership's clear choice for Russia's presidency, Alexander V. Vlasov, now the republic's premier. Gorbachev descended from his presidential box Wednesday and lit into Yeltsin.
"A serious analysis shows that what he suggests under the banner of the restoration of Russia's sovereignty means a call for the breakup of the Soviet Union," Gorbachev said from the rostrum, a statue of Soviet founder Vladimir I. Lenin at his back. His voice filled with emotion, Gorbachev branded his radical critics "political rogues" and accused them of "unscrupulous and dirty methods."
Significantly, all criticisms of Yeltsin were cut in excerpts from the Soviet president's speech shown on state-run television's 9 p.m. news program Vremya, which is watched by tens of millions of viewers, The previous day, Vremya aired none of Yeltsin's remarks.
Soviet officials have learned the hard way to be prudent in dealing with the 59-year-old, baby-faced populist from the Urals, who was elected to the Russian Congress from his native region of Sverdlovsk.
Yeltsin was ousted as Moscow party boss in November, 1987, after criticizing the pace of Gorbachev's economic and social reforms as too slow. His popularity has soared every time rank-and-file Soviets have perceived that the party powerful is out to discredit him.
He is the closest thing the Soviet Union has to an "anti-establishment" hero of national scale, and his political fortune has come from denouncing the limousines, country dachas and other perks granted the party and government elite while millions of common folk must stand in line to buy soap or sausage.
When the party announced that it was probing his views for possible ideological heresy and the apparatus launched a campaign against him, Moscow voters--more than 6 million of them--rallied to his cause, giving him a landslide victory in elections to the new national Parliament last year.
Though he still sits on the party's Central Committee and was a non-voting member of the ruling Politburo until his falling-out 2 1/2 years ago with Gorbachev, his former political mentor, Yeltsin has the same sort of outsider appeal that presidential candidates such as George Wallace did for Americans who wanted to show they were fed up with the Washington bureaucracy and the powers that be.
The extent of the hopes placed in Yeltsin was reflected by dozens of voters' telegrams posted in the lobby of the Russian legislature. In a typical example, a collective of garage workers from Sverdlovsk cabled: "We support candidacy of professional politician B. N. Yeltsin, only one capable of leading Russia from economic crisis and proponent of democracy."
Gorbachev, who noted that much of what Yeltsin advocates is in line with present party doctrine, seemed to make an attempt to put a dent in his reputation as the champion of the common man by contending that his speech "contained an attempt to excommunicate Russia from socialism."
"There was not a single mention of the word socialism. Even the words Soviet and socialist disappeared from Yeltsin's name for the republic," Gorbachev said.
"For us Russians, for all peoples of our country, the socialist choice, the power of the soviets are not just phrases. They are our fundamental values, our benchmarks," said Gorbachev, himself the son of a peasant family from south Russia.
Yeltsin's sovereignty proposal, one of at least four being debated by the Russian congress, is akin to measures passed by the independence-minded Baltic republics during the initial phase of their secession drives. It would allow the 15 constituent Soviet republics and individual businesses to fix their own trade contracts, rather than passing though Moscow-based ministries, the practice for decades.
Gorbachev ridiculed the workability of such proposals, saying: "This carries the sovereignty issue to absurdity, and in general, that would lead to anarchy, to parochialism."
In Russia, as in seemingly all corners of this country of more than 100 nationalities, demands for greater local autonomy and even independence are multiplying. Though declaring himself in favor of reinforcing Russian sovereignty, Gorbachev implied that it, unlike other Soviet republics, is too big and powerful to be allowed complete self-rule, or as one congress member, journalist Irina Zalevskaya, demanded, to secede from the Soviet Union.
"How could we go on if Russia goes in another direction?" Gorbachev asked.
Russia's new Parliament, which opened its session on May 16, is charged with electing a smaller working legislature. After voting on what sort of sovereignty it claims for itself, the congress could choose as early as this week the Russian president, whose official title is chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet, or legislature.
Yeltsin, a leader of the radical-reformist "Democratic Russia" bloc of deputies, has said that a third of the 1,059 congress members support him, and his election to succeed the outgoing Russian president, Politburo member Vitaly I. Vorotnikov, would give him a highly visible and powerful office that he could use to challenge Gorbachev and his policies.
Yeltsin is considered an outside choice, but the balance of forces in the congress is still in flux and unclear.