Radicals and Hard-Liners Face off at Soviet Congress Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev Steps into the Cross-Fire at Today's Historic 28th Communist Party Congress

Article excerpt

THE powerful monolith that has ruled the Soviet Union for more than seven decades - the Communist Party of the Soviet Union - is at war with itself.

When the 28th Congress of the party opens today in Moscow, the party will be torn by dissension not seen since its earliest days. Members of the left and right wings of the party do not conceal their hatred for each other, their distaste even at holding membership cards in the same organization.

Standing in the middle of this crossfire will be Mikhail Gorbachev, at once the author of change and its chief victim. All will be watching to see if he once again emerges with his power intact.

At the time of the last Communist Party (CPSU) Congress in 1986, Mr. Gorbachev had just taken over the leadership. Since then, the party has abandoned its constitutional monopoly on power and a multiparty system has begun to operate. Slowly, with resistance, it has given up its power over the day-to-day administration of the country, though less so outside the big cities.

Some on the left argue that the party has already been made irrelevant by the shift of power to popularly elected legislatures. "If the CPSU were the only body which decides the destiny of perestroika (restructuring), as it had been five years ago, the Congress would play an enormous role," radical Moscow mayor Gavril Popov said in a published interview. "But now the situation is completely different."

The balancing game between left and right has been Gorbachev's speciality during his five years in power. But political polarization has accelerated rapidly during the last year, making it increasingly hard for him to survive by that means.

The underlying force behind this growth of radicalism is the severe economic crisis of the Soviet Union, an economic recession in a system which no longer functions. The old command economy has visibly broken down, producing severe shortages and a falloff in production, while attempts to create a market-based economy are dogged by half-measures and resistance from conservative bureaucrats.

Though he won popularity for authoring the changes, Gorbachev now reaps criticism for his handling of this process. Even his close aides such as Deputy Premier Leonid Abalkin, the architect of the economic reform plan, question his decisiveness.

"In many things, he has shown an inconsistent and hesitant approach," Mr. Abalkin told the independent Interfax news service recently.

And everyone will be watching to see whether that is still true when the 28th Congress convenes today. The tensions within the party exploded into the open more than a week ago when a conference was held to form a separate Russian branch of the CPSU. Party conservatives took over the floor, launching a wave of assaults on every aspect of Gorbachev's reform policies. They succeeded in electing one of their own, Ivan Polozkov, as head of the group.

The event shocked left and left-center elements of the party, who filled the pages of the press with analyses decrying what many see as a "dress rehearsal" for the larger party Congress. They backed an ill-fated effort last week to try to postpone the Congress.

"All thinking communists can now leave the (newly formed) Russian Communist Party with a clear conscience," radical Leningrad mayor Anatoly Sobchak says.

Gorbachev is criticized for losing control of the situation in the party. …