Communist Party leaders are pondering postponement of a crucial congress set for next week that will decide the fate of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s political reforms and personal power, populist politician Boris N. Yeltsin confirmed Tuesday.
Less than a week before the 28th Communist Party Congress is to convene, an independent news service reported that Gorbachev supporters have raised the idea of a delay with Estonian Communist leaders. A conservative source in the party said Gorbachev is pushing for the delay out of panic that the impending congress, due to open Monday, would galvanize conservatives and hand over control of the party to traditional Marxists.
If Communist reformers were to stall for time in convening the session that has been months in preparation, it would be tantamount to admitting that they have been overwhelmed by increasingly vocal conservative opponents digging in their heels against change and uncertainty.
Whether to go ahead with the congress, which Yeltsin, the president of the Russian republic, described as the party’s “last chance” to prove its leadership ability, will be a decision for the party Central Committee when it meets later this week in what is expected to be a tumultuous session.
Gorbachev and his perestroika reform movement came under harsh attack last week at a conference of Communists from the Russian republic, and Yeltsin, a populist who criticizes the Soviet president for not going far enough, fast enough, hinted at fears among the pro-reform crowd that the conservatives have gained dangerous momentum. About 60% of the 4,700 delegates to the national congress are from the Russian party.
“The plenum will be very difficult,” Yeltsin said, referring to the Central Committee meeting that traditionally precedes a party congress. “There will be a real struggle. Some people, caught up in the mood of the Russian congress, are for holding a congress now.”
He was referring to conservative delegates to the national congress, a session held every five years to draft broad goals and guidelines for the party that has dominated Soviet society since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. It was at the last party congress, in February, 1986, that Gorbachev launched his perestroika (restructuring) campaign.
“Others, in order to somehow stabilize the political atmosphere which is now taking shape, will be for putting the congress back a bit, perhaps until autumn,” Yeltsin said of the reformist wing led by Gorbachev.
He said he considers it “expedient” to delay the congress, which Gorbachev moved up from its original date in 1991. Congresses are the only opportunity for changing the membership of the policy-making Central Committee, and Gorbachev had been trying to bring in more supporters to replace aging party bureaucrats opposed to his reforms.
A conservative party source allied with Gorbachev critics such as Politburo member Yegor K. Ligachev and Russian party leader Ivan K. Polozkov said the worried reformers appear to have little chance of winning a delay.
Party leaders from the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were indifferent to the idea of waiting until the conservative storms die down, the source said, while most other republic party figures argued against a delay.
The independent Estonian News Service reported that Politburo member Vadim A. Medvedev, a Gorbachev ally, called Estonia’s party chief Rein Elvak to sound him out on whether the congress should be postponed on grounds that, as currently scheduled to begin Monday, it would interfere with crop harvesting in southern Russia.
The official news agency Tass, however, said a party commission held a preparatory meeting for the congress Tuesday to discuss amendments to the draft platform. It gave few details of the session.
Yeltsin, a member of the policy-making Central Committee, said any change in the congress schedule would have to be decided at the plenum. No date for the meeting has been disclosed, but it is expected later this week.
Yeltsin made clear that a showdown within the leadership is likely at the plenum, repeatedly predicting that it would be a difficult session.
The Central Committee must work out its proposal for a party platform and new rules that determine how the party is governed. Those drafts will then be presented for debate by the congress.
The party congress is likely to become a battleground for determining whether Gorbachev-style reformers or traditional Marxists gain control of the party. The conservatives fear radical measures that could further disrupt the embattled economy or reduce the perks and privileges enjoyed by the top ranks.
Gorbachev stands to lose the support of some key advocates of perestroika if the congress fails to edge out of the Central Committee the local party bureaucrats stalling on reform.
The party Central Committee will decide whether to go ahead with the national congress, currently scheduled to begin Monday, when it meets at an undisclosed time later this week. The Central Committee must work out its proposal for a party platform and new rules that determine how the party is governed. Those drafts would then be presented for debate by the congress.