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NEWS ANALYSIS : Gorbachev’s Last Task: ‘To Quit With Dignity’ : Government: In 48 hours, the political ground was washed out from under him. He might be offered a golden parachute.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The question now being asked by all of Moscow is: when?

The legislature was crammed Thursday afternoon as lawmakers, VIPs and hangers-on flocked to the Kremlin to watch what they thought was to be the final act of a political drama. It didn’t happen then, but there is little doubt that it will.

“Everything has a beginning and an end,” Georgy K. Shakhnazarov, political adviser to Mikhail S. Gorbachev, lame-duck president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, told correspondents with a philosophical shrug.

In 48 hours, the political ground was washed out from under Gorbachev’s feet as fast as if he had been caught in a desert flood.

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From the house where V. I. Lenin’s lover once lived to the highest circles of Soviet spydom, the signs were multiple and unmistakable that the Gorbachev era--with its visions of glasnost, perestroika and a reformed Soviet state--was fated to disappear soon from the scene.

“The star of Gorbachev has fallen,” mused Father Gelb Yakunin, a Russian Orthodox priest who was in labor camp when Gorbachev came to power in March, 1985, and now sits as a reformist member of Russia’s legislature. “Now, he has only one task left--to quit the political stage with dignity.”

“He must heed the bell of history that now tolls for him,” Yakunin said.

Its fateful peal could be heard all over this slush-bound capital, if one listened. It came ringing through remarks from the country’s No. 1 spymaster, Yevgeny M. Primakov, as he lunched on baked sturgeon smothered in potatoes with a small group of foreign journalists.

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“Our country is going through a serious transitional period,” Primakov said, referring to the agreement last Sunday by Russia, Ukraine and Belarus to scrap the Soviet Union in favor of a Commonwealth of Independent States. “What has already been signed and what, as I see it, may be enlarged by other republics joining by the end of this week is a new phase in the development of our society.”

A Gorbachev confidant, Primakov was the president’s personal envoy to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to try to avert the Persian Gulf War.

From what he said Thursday, there was no doubt Primakov and the Soviet foreign intelligence agency that he heads are gearing up for the post-Gorbachev age.

“Intelligence, I am sure, must exist as an integral system,” Primakov said. “At the same time, republics are within their rights to create any services they want to.”

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In a building across from the Kremlin’s high wall where Lenin’s mistress, Inessa Armand, lived before her death in 1920, the country’s Constitutional Compliance Committee now has its headquarters. A toothless legal watchdog, it is chaired by Sergei Alexeyev, a notorious political weather vane.

On Monday, Gorbachev blasted the legality of the commonwealth plan masterminded by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. Three days later, however, Alexeyev said that his committee has no right to question “acts of sovereign states.”

Even Gorbachev’s personal adviser on legal affairs, Veniamin Yakovlev, went on record with a Soviet journalist to note that Yeltsin’s commonwealth “does not entirely contradict” the Gorbachev proposal for a single confederative state.

With other republics, high-ranking military officers and even the Bush Administration seemingly accepting the commonwealth’s inevitability, it appeared at one point that Gorbachev might announce his resignation to the Supreme Soviet (legislature), which he overhauled three years ago to make the centerpiece of his political reforms.

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With the devolution of real power to the republics, the Supreme Soviet has become an irrelevant talking shop that on some days draws only 50 or so participants.

The sentiment seemed universal that the Gorbachev era was already over.

“He must go, yet he did great things,” said historian Dmitri Likhachev, one of the most respected members of the Academy of Sciences. “He freed our country from the fear that came from the party system that oppressed us and also freed the states of Eastern Europe. For that, he had to be courageous and bold.”

“Now, if he goes quietly, he will be well remembered,” Likhachev said.

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Russian officials said a golden parachute still might be offered to Gorbachev--for example, the job of commonwealth commander in chief--in part to save his political face. But the man who has led a superpower for 6 1/2 years ruled out becoming a figurehead.

“I do not view myself as a wedding-party general,” Gorbachev told one interviewer. It was a cutting reference to a pathetic character created by Anton Chekhov--a man paid to come to a party to dazzle guests with his epaulets.

Shakhnazarov, Gorbachev’s adviser, summed up the pathos of his predicament: “As president, he is doing what he must do.

“He is saying, ‘I respect your decision. Continue. But without me, if you please.’ ”

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