MOSCOW, JAN. 26 -- If a recent political showdown in the Soviet republic of Armenia is any example, Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms are running into pockets of brazen resistance.
Organs of the central press such as Pravda and Izvestia are taking an increasingly harsh tone against intransigent regional officials in the Armenian and other cases, signaling that the Kremlin's battle to break down this resistance is going to get ugly between now and June's critical Communist Party conference.
In the last week, readers of the party newspaper Pravda have read hard-hitting stories about political scandals in Armenia, massive corruption in Uzbekistan and yet another case of abuse of police power in the Ukraine.
In each case, the charges were based not on isolated instances of corruption and bribery, but on proof of elaborate networks requiring the connivance of high-ranking officials.
In the Uzbek case, Pravda reviewed a three-year-old scandal in the cotton industry and hinted for the first time that the corruption spread almost as high as it could go -- to the son-in-law of the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Today, Tass reported that the son-in-law, former deputy interior minister Yuri Churbanov, will be charged with taking bribes of more than 650,000 rubles (about $1 million).
In another article, in the government newspaper Izvestia, one of Brezhnev's personal secretaries was implicated in a bribery scheme. The article said Gennadi Brovin, charged with taking 19,000 rubles (about $30,000) in bribes, was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison.
Another Pravda story implicated officials in the Ukraine, including an officer of the KGB security police, in a case of bribery, corruption and abuse of an accused prisoner. Ukrainian party chief Vladimir Shcherbitsky, presumed to be a target of such reports, is the only remaining member of the Politburo closely linked with Brezhnev.
In Soviet political life, anticorruption campaigns serve to focus attention on topical themes. In this case, they seem directed at the Communist Party's old guard, and the privileges power has given them. The central press' frontal attack, particularly in the Armenian case, is seen as a sign that Gorbachev is now ready to face down challenges to his policies.
Last June, Gorbachev brought attention to the situation in Armenia when he publicly chastised Armenian party leaders for moral shortcomings, even citing long-time First Secretary Karen Demirchyan by name.
Gorbachev's call was answered by a regional party official, Gaik Kotandzhyan, who twice challenged the Armenian party on widespread corruption in its midst. For his frankness, Kotandzhyan was attacked at a Dec. 26 meeting of the republic Central Committee by 24 speakers who rose in turn to denounce him for adventurism, careerism and even schizophrenia.
The Dec. 26 meeting in Armenia was reminiscent of the orchestrated rebuke hurled last November at ousted Moscow party boss Boris Yeltsin. But this time the attacked reformer was vindicated -- first in Izvestia and, more significantly, last week in Pravda.
Pravda's account of Kotandzhyan's accusations was a direct slap at the version put forward by Demirchyan's allies at the Dec. 26 meeting. Pravda backed up Kotandzhyan's charges of corruption, indicating that responsibility for the free-wheeling bribery lay with Demirchyan himself.
The Pravda and Izvestia stories have convinced most political observers in Moscow of the pending ouster of party chief Demirchyan, who has held the post since 1974. But as events since June have shown, Demirchyan, like other members of the old guard, has a formidable talent for survival.
The publicity given the Armenian case seems intended to put other obstreperous regional officials on notice as Gorbachev heads toward this summer's party conference, crucial in his efforts to consolidate support. The conference is expected to produce personnel changes in the Central Committee -- the core of the Soviet leadership.
Judging from Pravda's description of the power base built up in Armenia, it is not surprising that Gorbachev's criticisms last June went unheeded. Citing Kotandzhyan, the newspaper recounted tales of greed and cover-ups, payoffs and protection rackets .
Police and prosecutors were implicated. The paper said it is an open secret in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, that the hundreds of private cars parked outside the Internal Affairs Ministry are paid for with bribes. When evidence of corruption -- such as a taped conversation about payoffs in gold to a regional first secretary -- were given to Demirchyan, there was "no reaction whatsovever," Pravda said.
Other examples of the current anticorruption campaign also focus on the willful resistance to change by those who do not want to lose their privileges. A recent report from the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan, where the ouster of party First Secretary Dinmukhamed Kunaev led to nationalist riots in December 1986, charged high-ranking officials with inciting the rioting in order to cling to power.
The report, in the republic's party newspaper, said that reforms had "stirred panic and confusion among those who did not wish to lose their social goods and services and material privileges. Many felt the heavy burden of fear that their crimes would be uncovered."
According to Kazakhstan's law enforcement agencies, investigations after Kunaev's ouster showed that ministers and regional first secretaries had headed "criminal groups," and that, in all, "4,700 plunderers and 330 extortionists" were exposed for siphoning off 18 million rubles (almost $29 million).
Uzbekistan, the most populous Central Asian republic, has been under repeated attacks for corrupt practices, most recently for falsification of economic figures and for the embezzlement of more than 4 billion rubles ($6.4 billion) in a celebrated cotton scam. Although old in some cases, these examples are seen as the main reason for the retirement this month of Inamzhon Usmankhodzhaev, the last of the Central Asian republic first secretaries to have predated Gorbachev.