A rare public debate over the perks of Communist Party membership has spilled off the pages of Pravda and become a key issue at the 27th party congress, the gathering of 5,000 Soviet Communist delegates now entering its second week here.
In dispute is the extent to which party members and party officials -- who make up only 6.6 percent of the population -- should enjoy rights and privileges closed to nonparty members. A week of congress speeches has given rise to various opinions, including opposing views from members of the ruling Politburo.
The stakes of the debate are high. The advantages offered to Communist officials, long a major attraction to the party, include privileges most Soviets only dream about: access to well-stocked stores and exclusive resorts and such conveniences as better apartments and chauffeur-driven cars.
The reform of party members' privileges is an issue of controversy in recent Soviet history. The antiprivileges drive Nikita Khrushchev launched in the early 1960s helped bring his 1964 ouster from office.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's continuing attempts to clean up the image of party officials through harsh punishments for alcoholism, corruption and bribery have added to the controversy over party privileges.
Western analysts consider the issue central to Gorbachev'sgoal of increasing worker productivity 150 percent during the next 15 years.
"People are not going to be encouraged to work harder," one said, "if they feel that the spoils of labor are distributed unfairly."
Opponents argue that such privileges are taken for granted and have lured some party officials into decadence.
"If a Communist leader loses his essential qualities -- justice, party modesty, complete self-giving -- and uses his privileges not for work," nonvoting Politburo member Boris Yeltsin said in a hard-hitting speech Wednesday, "then, as Lenin expressed, this 'hinders democracy and is the source of the decay of the party and the lowering of Communist authority, which we cannot allow."
"In my opinion," Yeltsin said, "in those places where privileges of leaders at all levels is not warranted, they must be canceled."
Some Soviet proponents of the benefits argue that they are not luxuries but an ease on the heavy demands of party service.
Yeltsin's remark drew several heated response from the congress floor, including one from second-ranking Politburo member Yegor Ligachev.
Asked during a Thursday press conference whether senior party officials' access to special shops would be limited, Politburo member Gaidar Aliyev first denied the shops existed, then said the issue was under discussion, and finally retreated into the defensive.
"It depends on how much people work," he said, adding that party workers are often busier than other Soviets, who have time to shop after a seven-hour workday.
The official Soviet newspaper Pravda provoked the debate on Feb. 13, shortly before the congress started, by publishing letters of complaint about the special shops and other privileges for party members. The uproar over the startling letters -- the first mention in print of the special shops -- extended into the party leadership.
According to one authoritative account, Ligachev personally rebuked Pravda editor Victor Afanasiev, a member of the Central Committee, for publishing them.
Although Pravda published a retraction two days after the letters appeared, Ligachev reprimanded the paper's editors when he spoke to the congress Thursday.
"In the period up to the congress," he said, "the press and the media have stepped up the struggle against everything that is unfit to the Soviet way of life. Unfortunately some newspapers, including the Pravda editorial board, fell by the wayside."
The comment is widely viewed in Moscow as a public rebuke for the publication of the letters.
Some party members readily admit that their security is threatened by the attack on their perks.
"You're talking about removing the one thing that distinguishes them from other Soviets," said one western diplomat who has followed the debate closely. "That's dangerous ground."
In his five-hour speech to the congress, Gorbachev skirted the controversial issue. But he showed an awareness of the effects of a party with an overprivileged image. He told the delegates: "We have to live and work in such a way that the working person could say: 'Yes, this is a real Communist.' "