Gorbachev Faces Moment of Truth : Soviet Union: With the economy ever worsening, the Communist Party might split into conservatives and progressives at this week's Soviet Party Congress.

Arthur Macy Cox is the secretary of the American Committee on U.S.-Soviet relations. He is a 40-year veteran of Soviet affairs who served in the State Department and the CIA

Mikhail S. Gorbachev has pulled one rabbit after another out of the hat during the past five years, but his magic may face its greatest test yet at the 28th Congress of the Communist Party beginning tomorrow.

Until now, Gorbachev's miraculous juggling act has balanced progressives against conservatives. This has permitted remarkable political progress in foreign policy, but has created a disastrous economy. The socialist system supported by conservatives does not work; moving to a market economy means progressives must take charge. Continuing compromise will result in stagnation, chaos and possible civil war. A showdown is essential.

The Russian Party Congress provided ominous portence by its June 22 election of Ivan K. Polozkov, a strident conservative critic of Gorbachev, as chairman. The essentially conservative delegation that attended the Russian Party Congress will make up more than half the delegates to this week's Soviet Party Congress. Therefore, a significant majority will probably vote against the economic changes advocated by Gorbachev.

Though still holding power, these conservative delegates do not represent popular opinion in the Soviet Union--it is not even the majority of the Communist Party, as national elections this spring revealed. Most younger party members are progressives, but they are not well represented among the delegates. Many of these younger members have indicated an intention to leave the Communist Party if this congress results in continuing conservative domination.

Gorbachev has appealed for unity and support for perestroika , but a fundamental impasse between the factions has led to economic decline and atrophy. His closest advisers, such as Alexander N. Yakovlev and Eduard A. Shevardnadze, have called for splitting the party in two--progressives and conservatives. If that happens, the conservatives will probably not survive, for they cannot win popular elections. Whether there is a split at the congress or not, the Communist Party, in its current form, is certain to disintegrate.

The Communist Party has been running the Soviet Union for 70 years as a totalitarian elite, sustained by a vast secret police and the world's largest military. Today, the Soviet Union has a population of about 287 million, and the Communist Party has something less than 20 million members. In other words, 7% of the people have been ruling the nation and receiving the political and economic privileges stemming from Communist Party membership. It is not surprising, therefore, that the party's conservative majority wants to maintain the system.

Under these circumstances, Gorbachev's success in eroding the party's power has been astonishing. By lifting the veil of secrecy he has exposed the corruption of the bureaucracy and the inconsistency of the ideology. His new thinking, especially in foreign policy, has been persuasive to a majority of party leaders. Thus, he has been able to end the Cold War by freeing Eastern Europe and promoting demilitarization.

Gorbachev has created an institutional framework to govern the Soviet Union with growing independence from the Communist Party's centralized apparatus. A parliamentary system was set up last year--with formation of the Congress of Peoples Deputies and its operating arm, the Supreme Soviet. In March, the Congress of Peoples Deputies elected Gorbachev president of the Soviet Union for a five-year term. Thereafter, presidents will be elected by popular vote. Gorbachev chose an advisory group, the Federation Council, that wields much of the decision-making authority once reserved for the party's Politburo.

The Soviet constitution has been revised to provide a system of government based on laws that protect the rights of individual citizens. New laws include provisions for freedom of speech, press and formation of public organizations. The Soviet government will now ensure freedom of religion. An independent Supreme Court will be created as a separate government branch.

Perhaps the most dramatic revision of the constitution so far is the amendment of Article 6--which guaranteed the Communist Party's primacy. The new amendment provides for pluralism. Indeed, several new independent political parties are already being formed.

Boris Yeltsin, a Communist Party activist, was brought into the Politburo by Gorbachev. Yeltsin, impatient and aggressive, caused a constant row by challenging the slow pace of reform. The Politburo's conservative members demanded Yeltsin's ouster and Gorbachev yielded. Ever since, Yeltsin has been on a rampage, attacking the Communist Party leadership--including Gorbachev. His fiery rhetoric has been most effective in rousing people against the inadequate vacillating measures taken to improve the decaying economy. Yeltsin has replaced Gorbachev as the most popular critic of the defects in the communist system. On May 29, Yeltsin was elected president of the huge Russian republic.

The party congress should force the inevitable confrontation that has been papered over until now. The conservatives will be fighting for their survival. They have already indicated the thrust of their attack against Gorbachev's vulnerabilities. They will stress that, after five years of perestroika, the Soviet economy is in worse shape. Yegor K. Ligachev, leader of the conservatives, has proposed a national referendum on whether to continue socialism or move toward capitalism. The conservatives will say the inept manner in which price increases were announced caused panic buying. They will point to the increase in crime and the lack of order. They will stress the potential disintegration of the Soviet empire, the loss of Eastern Europe and the violent uprisings in some Soviet republics.

They will attack the handling of the issue of Germany's reunification and its possible membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Twenty-six million Soviets were killed, and another 20 million wounded, in the war against Nazi Germany. The "Great Patriotic War" is a dynamic force in the memory of Soviet society; no foreign-policy issue compares in importance.

As a result of this confrontation, the Communist Party could split in two during or after the party congress. Then the crucial question will be how the KGB and the military align themselves. The political process in the Soviet Union has recently evolved toward a civil society based on the rule of law, but foundations are still shaky. Real power still resides in the guns of the KGB and the military. The KGB and officer corps of the armed forces are Communist Party members. They are the party's security institutions and are traditionally conservative.

If the security forces support the conservatives, Gorbachev and perestroika will be in trouble. This would be unlikely, however. Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, head of the KGB, was appointed by Gorbachev and is one of his strongest supporters. Other senior KGB members are known backers of Gorbachev.

The military leadership is somewhat more problematical. Some of the generals and admirals have been sharply critical of Gorbachev's military cuts. However, most will probably remain loyal to Gorbachev because his government pays their salaries. In addition, many junior officers are outspoken supporters of Gorbachev's reforms.

This is an important reason why Yeltsin is not a serious threat to Gorbachev--he has almost no KGB or military support. However, Yeltsin and other progressives can help Gorbachev by countering the conservatives' attack. The progressives' popularity among non-communists provides political clout. There are indications that Gorbachev will form an alliance with Yeltsin and other progressive critics in the struggle with the party's right wing.

It will be a close call, but the odds are on Gorbachev. If he wins this one, he will soon be free to relinquish his role as general secretary of the Communist Party and concentrate on being president of the Soviet Union. The Communist Party may have an important role for some time, but as it competes with other political parties its power will decline.

If Gorbachev is victorious at the party congress he will have a mandate to act decisively on the difficult process of moving the Soviet economy toward free enterprise and in forming a new federation of Soviet republics that guarantees their political and economic sovereignty. It is in the interest of the United States that he do so. He should receive all of the assistance and encouragement we can provide.

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