MOSCOW, JUNE 23 -- Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, facing the growing threat of a split within the Communist Party, said today that he would retain "for now" the leadership of the party despite demands that he step down.
Gorbachev said that eventually one person would not be able to hold the offices of both general secretary of the Communist Party and president of the Soviet government, but during the current transfer of power from the party to the government, "I am convinced we have to keep the situation as it is."
Gorbachev made his remarks to a conference of members of the Communist Party of the Russian Republic just after the session had elected as chairman one of his most strident conservative critics, Krasnodar party boss Ivan Polozkov.
Polozkov, for his part, tried to portray himself as a moderate, a man who supports the Gorbachev reforms if only with certain "reservations." But he has waged war on one of the few signs of economic change in the Soviet Union, the rise of cooperative enterprises. In the Krasnodar region last year, Polozkov shut down over 1,000 cooperatives, calling such businesses "a social evil, a malignant tumor."
Polozkov's election emphasized the profound divisions among the three key factions in the party: the radical wing called Democratic Platform; Gorbachev's reformers in the center; and the numerous conservative provincial leaders and military officials who elected Polozkov amid despair over the party's decline in power and ideological purity.
The issue of whether Gorbachev will retain his role of general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party had emerged as the organization prepares for next month's 28th Congress and as Gorbachev has come under increasing pressure from conservatives to step down as party leader.
Before Gorbachev's perestroika reform policies, the Communist Party was the sole source of power in the Soviet Union. But Gorbachev has been seeking to build up the elected legislature and the newly created position of president -- to which he was elected by lawmakers this year -- as stable power centers and reduce the party's role in government.
Most of Gorbachev's executive power now stems from the presidency, not from the post of general secretary. As more Soviets view the party as representing little more than the failure of communism, speculation has grown that Gorbachev might give up the party leadership but retain the presidency, allowing him to maintain governmental power but also stay at the forefront of the reform program he initiated.
Some delegates at the founding conference of the Communist Party of the Russian Republic, by far the largest and most populous of the Soviet Union's 15 republics, said Polozkov's election would hurt the Communist cause.
Centrist delegate Vyacheslav Bragin of Kalinin said Polozkov's victory "will hasten the sunset of the Communist Party." Vladimir Lysenko, a delegate from Democratic Platform, told Radio Moscow, "If things continue this way, millions of people will leave the party, and the party will fall apart into a totally unviable organization."
Gorbachev said a split in the party would polarize the political forces in the country and "would be a gift for those who want to bury perestroika reforms and defeat them." He said that avoiding a split was "our task of tasks."
But the reaction to Gorbachev's evening performance made clear the depth of the resentments among party conservatives.
For over an hour, Gorbachev answered written questions from the floor, trying with all of his powers of emotion and persuasion to convince the deputies of the wisdom of such reform policies as cuts in the defense budget and a transfer to a market economy. Many of the old-guard deputies grumbled and fidgeted in their seats.
At one point, Gorbachev leafed through a folder of questions to find one asking when he would issue a presidential order on "discipline" in the workplace. "Do you want to return to the 1940s?" Gorbachev said, referring to the totalitarian methods of dictator Joseph Stalin.
Polozkov tried to strike a conciliatory note, saying he hopes that Gorbachev will remain leader of the party after next month's party congress. But his election made clear that the conservative delegates at the congress will press the Soviet leader to make common cause with them and not Democratic Platform, which wants to transform the Communists into an "ordinary parliamentary party with social democratic principles" much like those in Central Europe.
Polozkov, at closed Central Committee meetings and now at the Russian party conference, has repeatedly criticized Gorbachev and Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev for a lack of resolve and violations of Marxism-Leninism. "Gorbachev is too tolerant, too slow," Polozkov told reporters. "He thinks too much, he's too careful."
Polozkov, 55, has also slammed the lack of ideological purity in the leadership, called for increased old-style "party discipline" and criticized Gorbachev's plans to end party control of the country's economy and privatize more farms and industries. He said he objected to proposals that the Communist Party end its control of the army and KGB.
Now that he leads an organization representing about 11 million Russian Communists, Polozkov has suddenly joined Politburo member Yegor Ligachev as one of the country's most visible -- and vocal -- conservative critics of Gorbachev's reforms. At the conference, Ligachev participated in the chorus denouncing Gorbachev, calling him an "out-and-out revisionist."
Although Democratic Platform representatives say they have the support of about 25 percent of the country's party members, the group had only a few delegates at the Russian conference and will have about 125 at the congress next month. Instead, this week's speeches were mainly a barrage of conservative criticism.
Yakovlev, for his part, told the party newspaper Pravda that the party could only hope to survive by moving "to the left." In the Soviet Union, the "left" supports a market economy and Western-style political reforms, while the "right" wing represents the conservative interests of the old guard in the Communist Party who want to retain ideological and political control.
"If the party does not find enough strength and courage to renew itself in the spirit of reform, new difficulties may prove insurmountable," Yakovlev said. "The 28th Party Congress will not decide the fate of the perestroika reforms -- they will proceed all the same -- but the fate of the party, which has been swept by waves of retrograde tendencies."
The race for Russian Communist Party leader was tight, with Polozkov winning 1,396 votes and Armenian second secretary Oleg Lobov, a more moderate figure, getting 1,066. Earlier this month, Polozkov lost to Boris Yeltsin in an attempt to win the leadership of the Russian Republic's parliament.
Yeltsin, as a radical in the party, and Polozkov, as a conservative, are at political odds, and it is not clear how their relationship will evolve in the Russian Republic. Their differing duties -- Yeltsin as head of an increasingly independent government apparatus, and Polozkov as head of a party eager to reassert political control -- are likely to bring the two men into direct confrontation.
Polozkov said that he would try to build "businesslike relations" with Gorbachev, Yeltsin and even Democratic Platform. "There's no cause for confrontation," he said. Polozkov said Gorbachev's best quality "is that he doesn't take revenge for criticism."
He said he did not think his election would hasten an official split in the Communist Party but added that "some forces, who are opposed to me, may play on this event. I'll try to show workers, farmers and intellectuals that I'm not as dangerous a man as they make me out to be."