Next Step : Soviet Liberals Taking New Route to Reform : * An independent political movement may put some pep back in perestroika-- and some pressure on the Kremlin.


Some of the Soviet Union's brightest minds and boldest doers--the men who conceived perestroika six years ago to pull their country out of its stagnation, only to see it lose momentum under the weight of the Communist Party--are going to try again.

But this time they are launching a new political movement, independent of the Communist Party, to make their vision of a new Soviet Union a reality.

"Our main aim is to save perestroika, to save democracy, to develop democratic processes and provide guarantees that there will be no going back to the past, to a totalitarian regime," Eduard A. Shevardnadze, former foreign minister and a co-chairman of the new Democratic Reform Movement, said in a television interview. "We are taking a very important step, a very important step indeed."

In fact, if the group succeeds, it could mean non-Communists taking over the Kremlin, perhaps as soon as the next couple of years. If it fails, the Soviet Union's start-again, stop-again reform movement may be stuck in the same groove indefinitely.

Since the Communist Party grudgingly gave up its constitutional monopoly on power more than a year ago, dozens of political parties have been formed around the country. But so far, none is big enough or influential enough to mount a nationwide challenge to the Communists, with their formidable organizational network and financial base.

The leaders of the Democratic Reform Movement hope to change all that. They believe they will be able to draw the support of powerful people from across the Soviet Union, including most of its constituent republics, to take the political high ground from the Communists.

"The only criterion should be that participants speak in favor of reform," Ivan D. Laptev, another co-chairman of the Democratic Reform Movement, said in an interview. "If they are for reform, they are our friends, our colleagues, and we are ready to cooperate with them."

While the organizers of the new Democratic Reform Movement strive to define their goals and gather supporters from the pro-reform wing of the Communist Party and other political groups, however, many leading liberals are keeping their distance.

"It's a party just for very important people--a party for VIPs," said Galina V. Starovoitova, a liberal member of both the Soviet and Russian parliaments. "Sure, they all believe in very undefined democratic values--but all normal people agree with such values. We want to know what their more concrete steps will be."

The roll call for the new organization does look like it came from a who's who of Soviet politics: Gavriil Popov, mayor of Moscow; Anatoly A. Sobchak, mayor of Leningrad; Alexander N. Yakovlev, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's senior adviser; Laptev, chairman of the Chamber of the Union, one of the two houses of the Supreme Soviet, the country's legislature; Ivan S. Silayev, Russia's prime minister; Nikolai Y. Petrakov and Stanislav S. Shatalin, two pro-market economists--not to mention Shevardnadze.

Although the list looks impressive, many liberals say the prospects for the group's success are dim because most of its declared members have long-time connections with the Communist Party, and most are still party members. Both Shevardnadze and Yakovlev reached the party's highest echelon, the Politburo, and Laptev is still a powerful member of its Central Committee.

"These people are discredited by their former work with the Communist Party," Sergei Parkhomenko, a political observer for the liberal newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, said. "Psychologically, it puts a barrier between them and the people."

While many reform-minded Communist Party members have been quick to declare their intention to support the new movement, first announced early this month, leaders of the country's small democratic political parties and many independent liberals have not joined.

"I get the idea that it is just a makeover of the Communist Party," Alexander N. Tikhomirov, a Russian legislator and television newsman, said. "It appears to be a creation of a Gorbachev wing to oppose the extremists in the Communist Party. I left the party last year, and I don't want to join any party."

Although Gorbachev remains leader of the Soviet Communist Party, even he has given lukewarm endorsement to the Democratic Reform Movement, saying it's a positive force as long as it works toward the unification rather than the division of society. Some people go so far as to speculate that Gorbachev was covertly behind the movement in order to create a support structure for his political reforms if he should find it necessary to break with the Communist Party.

Many people are put off because the movement is spearheaded by members of the nomenklatura, the top level of government officials across the country who were always appointed by the party leadership.

"I would have liked younger people to have been involved," Ramazan Abdulatipov, chairman of the Chamber of Nationalities of the Russian Federation Supreme Soviet, the republic's legislature, said. "I would not like these new ideas to be soiled by dirty hands."

But one supporter of the Democratic Reform Movement who has never been a member of the Communist Party himself said his fellow liberals should be tolerant of the old guard.

"They say we're going to be a new party for the old nomenklatura, " Oleg I. Orlov, a Moscow city councilman, said. "But I'm one who does not think the nomenklatura are monsters. For example, I think Shevardnadze is a very capable man."

One of the first big challenges facing the Democratic Reform Movement is to clarify its platform and decide whether to be a proper political party or to remain an alliance of people from various pro-reform parties and individuals without party affiliation. These questions will be hot topics at the organization's founding congress, scheduled for September.

Shevardnadze, Popov and Sobchak--all of whom have quit the Communist Party--have voiced their support for making the Democratic Reform Movement a proper political party. "The newly formed organization should become a party of the European type," Popov told a group of Soviet editors. "Only a two-party system can provide a guarantee of democracy."

The main arguments for turning it into a party are that it would be more cohesive than a movement, and that Communist Party members would be forced to make a choice instead of sitting on the fence.

But Laptev argued that only as a movement can the new organization unite all of the country's progressive groups to push forward economic and political reforms. "I'm for the movement staying a movement for a long as possible," Laptev, who does not want to quit the Communist Party, said. "If it stops being a movement, it will become just another of the country's many parties that have no real influence."

The dispute is largely semantic, Laptev continued, because the movement will do everything a party does, including nominating candidates and running campaigns for elections on national, republican and local levels. The only difference, he said, is that members of other parties could remain in those organizations while simultaneously supporting the Democratic Reform Movement's principles.

"Our understanding of the word movement is like your understanding of the word party, " Laptev said. "Our understanding of the word party is like your understanding of the word army. "

One of the strongest arguments against turning the movement into a party is the reaction Soviet citizens have to the very word. "In our society there is an allergy to the word party, " Starovoitova said, "Because for 70 years we had only one party."

The Communist Party, which was the only legal party until a year ago, demanded complete obedience from its members, who were subject to party discipline enforced by a rigid hierarchy designed by Vladimir I. Lenin, the leader of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

"These days people do not want to join any party," Parkhomenko said. "Deep in their souls, people associate political parties with a harsh structure that applies pressure, represses people and forces its members to obey strict rules of conduct."

Unlike the other new political organizations, the Democratic Reform Movement plans to establish itself throughout the Soviet Union.

"In the last two years, no national party has been organized," Starovoitova said. "The organizers of this movement hope to be a national movement, but this is impossible. Maybe a few people from other republics will join them but it will not be a mass movement."

In many of the Soviet republics--especially the Ukraine, the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and the southern republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Moldova on the border with Romania--the democratic movements are strongly nationalist and favor secession from the Soviet Union. None would likely consider cooperation with the Democratic Reform Movement.

"I don't know of any groups in the Ukraine that could join in that movement," said Bogdan Ternopoisky, a leader of the Ukrainian national movement Rukh. "Political and democratic forces in the Ukraine are for Ukrainian independence and could not support the idea of a Moscow-based party. We only support groups that work to dismantle the Soviet Union."

Remarks From the Reformers

Several prominent Soviet figures have embraced the Democratic Reform Movement. Some of their comments:

"If several recent speeches by (Soviet President) Mikhail Gorbachev are anything to go by, there is no risk of him joining the movement so far."

Nikolai Y. Petrakov, economist

"Only a two-party system can provide a guarantee of democracy. The newly formed organization should . . . avoid setting ideological tasks for itself and should strive for gaining full power."

Gavriil Popov, Moscow mayor

"The experience of the last two years has shown that the unconnected, detached democratic forces in the republics have a very negative effect on the execution of reforms."

Anatoly A. Sobchak, Leningrad mayor

"There are now two political wings--the first is the Communist Party and the second is our movement. . . . Our main goal is to save democracy from the dangers and threats of dictatorship, chaos and anarchy."

Eduard A. Shevardnadze, former foreign minister

"We must honestly admit that . . . democratic revival of the Communist Party--its split with its dictatorial past and reformation into an able-bodied political organization--did not take place. The revolution in the society has not led to a revolution in the party."

Alexander N. Yakovlev, Gorbachev's top adviser

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