MOSCOW, JUNE 19 -- Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev defended himself today against public attacks that his reforms "are to blame for everything" and said that the political transformation of the Soviet Union since he came to power in 1985 is "comparable to the most radical events in world history."
Speaking on the opening day of the founding congress of the new Russian Communist Party, Gorbachev also attacked his conservative rival in the leadership, Yegor Ligachev, who has been complaining that the current reforms are in danger of "restoring" a capitalist economic system.
"Attempts are being made now to put forward the idea in society that a movement toward a market means a return to capitalism. Nothing could be more absurd," Gorbachev said without using Ligachev's name. "The market came with the dawn of civilization and is not the invention of capitalism. If the market leads to the improvement of peoples' daily lives, then there is no contradiction with socialism."
Gorbachev heard sharp, direct criticism today of the very events and ideas he has marked as historic achievements. Military leaders and orthodox, old-guard party leaders from the provinces were the most critical.
One Soviet army general, Albert Makashov, reflected anxiety in the military, saying, "Germany is reuniting and will probably become a member of NATO, Japan is becoming the decisive force in the Pacific. Only our wise peacocks are crowing that no one is going to attack us."
Makashov also denounced the decisions that led to the Soviet troop withdrawals from Eastern Europe -- "countries that our fathers liberated from fascism." And as a wave of applause rolled over him, the general said: "Comrades, the army and navy will be needed yet by the Soviet Union."
Another speaker, delegate Ivan Osadchi, called on the congress to fight the "suicide" of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party.
In the past year, Gorbachev's popularity has fallen sharply, and a public angry about the shortages of food and other basic commodities has grown cynical and anxious. Gorbachev, however, said today that his reforms had been responsible for a "root" attack on the Stalinist legacy: "We can say now that we have achieved politically and ideologically in five years what whole generations failed to achieve."
Gorbachev promised that the Communist Party "will be turned from an administrative body, imposing its will on society, into a political organization that will uphold its right to political leadership only in free competition with other socio-political forces." He said the party will renounce the authoritarian, bureaucratic system favoring elite party cadre and elect officers through multi-candidate, secret-ballot elections.
The congress hall was filled with hundreds of provincial party leaders, military officers and bureaucrats, many of whom feel that Gorbachev's perestroika reform program is a threat to their positions. Although Gorbachev made sure to attack "populists" and "leftists" as well in his speech, it was clear that the sharpest conflict is between the reformist wing of the party and the conservatives.
The Russian Communist Party was absorbed into the national organization under Joseph Stalin in 1925. But with the rise of influential party organizations in other republics and the increasing influence of both liberal and conservative Russian nationalism, the republic's party activists have decided to create their own body.
Originally, extreme conservatives, including the notoriously reactionary Leningrad party organization, dominated the Communist Party in the Russian republic. But after accepting the inevitability of such a party forum, Gorbachev has tried to make it his own. He said today that creation of a party for the republic is "advisable and necessary" so long as it does not conflict with the interests of the national party organization, which will hold its own congress next month.
"I view . . . the Russian Communist Party as part of the Soviet Communist Party. And I sharply disagree with those who seek the salvation of Russia in withdrawing from the Soviet Union," he said.
During much of the proceedings, Gorbachev sat at the presidium next to the republic's new president, Boris Yeltsin, who has advocated greater sovereignty for Russia.