MOSCOW, OCT. 30 -- A quarrel between two top members of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's leadership team at a recent Communist Party plenum has revealed a serious political rift that could disrupt Gorbachev's twin campaigns to carry out political and economic reforms throughout the country.
According to reports now circulating in Moscow, a hastily scheduled meeting of the party Central Committee on Oct. 22 erupted into a verbal battle between the powerful Moscow party boss, Boris Yeltsin, and chief party ideologist Yegor Ligachev, the number two man in the Kremlin behind Gorbachev. The bitter session ended with Yeltsin offering to resign in protest after accusing some Politburo members of slowing down the reform process in the city.
The reports pitting two of the most energetic members of the inner ruling circle against each other provided a rare glimpse of political infighting at the highest level of Soviet policy-making.
In all, 27 of the 300 members of the Central Committee got to their feet during the day-long meeting in the Kremlin, taking sides in the debate between Yeltsin, an alternate Politburo member, and Ligachev.
The reported dissension among senior members of the party and an open feud between two Gorbachev appointees -- both Siberians with reputations as vigorous disciplinarians -- could prove troublesome for the Kremlin leader as he enters a critical phase of his "restructuring" program, or perestroika. According to one report, sympathy among Central Committee members ran against Yeltsin, who is considered one of Gorbachev's closest allies.
Accounts of the rancorous Central Committee debate have heightened speculation that Gorbachev was responding to some form of internal political pressure when, two days later, on Oct. 24, he declined to fix a date for his upcoming visit to the United States during a meeting with Secretary of State George P. Shultz.
Gorbachev's refusal to set the summit was an abrupt switch in signals for his American guests. Four days later, just as abruptly, the Soviet position changed again and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze was dispatched to Washington to do the work that Shultz had been unable to finish in Moscow.
At a news conference today, a member of the Central Committee, Boris Pugo, first secretary of the Baltic republic of Latvia, denied that the summit had even been discussed at the plenum. "The discussion was not oriented to the future meeting with President Reagan and there were no recommendations on that account," he said.
Pugo's comment, the only one made by a member of the Central Committee on the record about the plenum, did not rule out that Gorbachev himself unexpectedly decided to pull back from the summit, waiting until domestic political storms had died down.
But it remains unclear what impact, if any, the dispute had on Gorbachev's decision during his meeting with Shultz to back away from a summit. During more than four hours of talks, Gorbachev unsuccessfully sought to wring concessions that would impose restraints on Reagan's plans to develop space-based missile defenses.
The brusque turn-around was seen as highly unusual by veteran Kremlin watchers who for decades had become used to the Soviet Union's cautious chessboard diplomacy. However, it more closely matches Gorbachev's style, which favors the risks and bluffs of poker.
But style alone cannot explain the shift in tactics that left people's heads spinning this week, both here and abroad.
Both Yeltsin, an outspoken advocate of reforms, and Ligachev, who has cautioned against "excesses," may lose authority as a result of the reported exchanges, according to some analysts. So far, Yeltsin's reported threat to resign has not been accepted.
Gorbachev, who gave the opening and closing speeches at the Oct. 22 meeting, was involved only indirectly in the discussion -- when Yeltsin complained that the Soviet press, out of old habits, is again building up a "cult of personality" around the leader, according to one report. He did not accuse Gorbachev of fostering the cult, according to this report, which is widely believed by Soviet and foreign analysts. They note that Yeltsin, a Gorbachev protege, is unlikely to challenge the leader.
Several Soviet and foreign observers have noted that the top members of the Soviet foreign policy establishment -- including Shevardnadze and Central Committee secretary Anatoliy Dobrynin, both members of the Central Committee -- are considered solid supporters of Gorbachev. This, they said, made it unlikely that anyone in the leadership would mount a challenge to his leadership in this field.
But Gorbachev's arms control proposals and a recent personnel shakeup in the military last spring have reportedly alienated some parts of the military bureaucracy. According to one unofficial report, new Soviet proposals to eliminate chemical weapons, together with other changes in the armed forces, could cost hundreds of thousands of military personnel their jobs.
According to one version of events, Yeltsin's outburst came after Gorbachev, in an opening speech, prodded the Moscow party chief on the lack of progress on reforms in the capital.
Yeltsin answered by complaining that perestroika in Moscow was being slowed because some people in the leadership were putting the brakes on it. It is not known whether Yeltsin accused Ligachev by name, but, according to several reports, he clearly implicated the second-ranking member who, on cultural and economic issues, has taken more conservative positions than Gorbachev.
According to the terse agenda of the meeting printed in the press, Ligachev spoke third. According to reports, he responded by criticizing Yeltsin. After a break in proceedings, other members of the Central Committee took part in the discussion, with the majority accusing Yeltsin of being "too emotional," according to one report. Some of Gorbachev's closest advisers -- Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev, USA and Canada Institute director Georgi Arbatov and Kazakhstan party chief Gennadi Kolbin -- rose to Yeltsin's defense.
Soviet observers noted that Yeltsin's dispute with Ligachev had surfaced before. At a meeting in Moscow recently, Yeltsin named Ligachev as one of two people interfering with personnel appointments, according to sources. The two have also disagreed over permitting informal nighttime music fests on the Arbat, a well-known pedestrian walkway in Moscow, according to one report. Ligachev, who is also the Politburo's strictest crusader against drinking, reportedly favored curtailing the late-night gatherings.
Without an official account of last week's plenum, it is difficult to gauge whether the debates there served as a test of Gorbachev's political strength. Although he has made major changes in the Central Committee during his 2 1/2 years in power, Gorbachev is still dealing with many holdovers from the Brezhnev era. Until he can add more members of his own, some analysts here say, he cannot be guaranteed full support from the Central Committee, particularly on domestic issues.