MOSCOW, JUNE 21 -- Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, surrounded this week by voices of resentment, is facing one of the most perplexing dilemmas of his political career: Should he remain head of the Communist Party or step down?
As this week's founding conference of the Russian republic's Communist Party organization has made plain, countless provincial party leaders see Gorbachev's perestroika reforms more as a blueprint for the collapse of their authority than for the revival of a culture and an economy. Party Politburo member Yegor Ligachev's charge that Gorbachev is guilty of "out-and-out revisionism" is, in the traditional lexicon of the Communist Party, a highly charged accusation -- not unlike one Republican calling another a "socialist."
So deep are the ideological and personal divisions that many Communists believe the conservatives could challenge Gorbachev for the post of general secretary at next month's crucial 28th Party Congress.
Gorbachev and Ligachev have long since torn away the old veils of party unity and discipline. They make no secret of their split. Gorbachev responded today to Ligachev's angry charges that he had failed to include the Politburo on decisions on the economy, Germany and Eastern Europe with a rhetorical barrage of his own. "To think that the ideas of reform came down from the sky or were just invented is a slander," Gorbachev said.
The delegates at the Russian party conference, however, have been saving their applause for the speeches that lash out at Gorbachev for transferring power from the party to the government and from the office of party general secretary to the presidency.
Alexander Melnikov, a party secretary from the Siberian mining city of Kemerovo, has lambasted Gorbachev in closed meetings of the party's policy-making Central Committee for "kowtowing" to the "leaders of capitalism and the pope of Rome." This week Melnikov won wild applause when he criticized Gorbachev for making a televised speech on the economy "without ever once using the words 'party' or 'communist.' "
At a closed session of the Russian party conference, delegates nominated seven party leaders, mainly conservatives, to head their new organization. Among the favorites are Melnikov, Ivan Polozkov of Krasnodar and Valentin Kuptsov, a Central Committee executive.
The contrast between Gorbachev and his circle of advisers and the Ligachevs and Melnikovs is so stark that it is almost impossible to understand why Gorbachev would want to remain head of the party. Most of his executive power now stems from the presidency, not from the post of general secretary. In fact, Gorbachev's party position does him nothing but harm in the eyes of millions of Soviet people for whom the party represents little more than the failure of Bolshevism.
Russian president Boris Yeltsin met privately with Gorbachev earlier this week and told reporters today that he thought the Soviet leader was seriously considering resigning as general secretary. Yeltsin, who appears to have forged a better relationship with Gorbachev in the past two weeks, said he told Gorbachev that he would be better off "occupying one chair instead of two."
But Gorbachev's choice is one that will require an acute sense of political timing and an accurate weighing of opposing forces.
Political life is in flux. Earlier this year, the party gave up, however reluctantly, its constitutional guarantee of a monopoly on poliitcal power, giving rise to the start of a multi-party system. Since then, Social Democrats, Greens, Christian Democrats and many others have held founding congresses. Even the reputation of Lenin, founder of the Soviet state, has dropped so rapidly that citizens of Leningrad are debating returning the city to one of its earlier names -- Petrograd or St. Petersburg.
But political life has not been wholly transformed. The fact remains that only the Communists have any real power, and that power includes a bottomless war chest, vast property holdings, control of newspapers and television.
For Gorbachev to abandon the party leadership this summer would mean that he risks abandoning the party's resources to someone else. Even conservatives, such as Leningrad party chief Boris Gidaspov, say they hope Gorbachev will retain both his party and government posts at least beyond the 28th Party Congress.
"It is enormously difficult to be both general secretary and president, but if Gorbachev decides to leave the party leadership, it would be a dramatic loss," Gidaspov said. "I don't think he will do it."
One of the main targets of party conservatives has been Alexander Yakovlev, Gorbachev's closest ally on the Politburo and the presidential advisory council. An owlish intellectual who has come to represent Gorbachev's most radical reformist instincts, Yakovlev gave a trenchant analysis of the conservative Communist position earlier this month at a closed meeting with students and faculty at Moscow State University. The struggle, he said, was personal and careerist as much as it was a matter of ideology.
"The conservatives have a lot to lose, while the . . . radicals have no assets," Yakovlev said. "It's a fact that the conservatives refuse to leave the scene. And you can hardly blame them for that. Life itself, the social environment in which all of us live, has created the ideals they are clinging to and has given them the personal motivations that compel them to act as they do.
"Imagine a person who for 40 years has been serving his ideal and who has grown accustomed to his position, his lifestyle, his living standards, who has grown used to wielding power -- history's most corrupting habit. Now that the change has come, they find it difficult, in their human way, to accept it."