MOSCOW, JAN. 19 -- Feeling betrayed and bitter over the army crackdown in the Soviet Baltic republics and the general abandonment of aggressive economic change, the last radical-reformists in the Kremlin leadership have resigned.
Whether under pressure or through his own design, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev now is almost completely surrounded by what reformists here call the "gray cardinals" -- Communist Party leaders determined to preserve the Soviet empire and the remnants of socialist ideology.
For the first time, it is no longer considered eccentric or alarmist here to discuss the Soviet future without reform or Gorbachev -- or both.
Democratic forces here now regularly talk of Gorbachev as the opponent, the head of a crackdown that could go well beyond Lithuania and the other two Baltic republics, Latvia and Estonia. They also speak of whether life would be so much different if one of the colorless and obedient party apparatchiks now at Gorbachev's side, men such as like Soviet legislative chairman Anatoly Lukyanov or the new vice president, Gennady Yanayev, took power.
Nikolai Petrakov, an economic adviser to Gorbachev who signed an open declaration earlier this week denouncing the regime's "criminal" acts in Lithuania, told the Communist youth newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda today that he has now resigned because he had no chance of instituting reform under the current leadership.
"I got the sense I could no longer influence events," said Petrakov, a strong advocate of a free-market economy. "My presence became senseless." At first, Petrakov said, Gorbachev rejected his resignation, but when the Soviet leader saw the accusation of criminality in the weekly Moscow News, he called back and accepted.
Petrakov's resignation makes it clear that in the political battle over the future of Europe's last empire, the alignment of forces has now come down to a struggle between elected reformists and nationalists in the 15 Soviet republics and a Kremlin regime that has shown support -- in the words of Gorbachev's former adviser Alexander Yakovlev -- only for "the rise of a vengeful and merciless conservative wave."
"Oh, yes, I think the conservatives are now the only sensible people around," said Gorbachev's former hard-line Kremlin rival, Yegor Ligachev, in an interview. "It is about time the forces of socialism and the party made their comeback against separatists and all who would destroy us." Ligachev, who was forced out of the leadership last summer, does not hide his jubilation. Everything has been going his way.
Ever since Gorbachev rejected the proposed "500-Day Plan" for accelerated transition to a market economy in mid-October, hard-line leaders of the KGB security police, the military and the Communist Party have gained power and confidence, while one reformist after another has left the stage. Economists Stanislav Shatalin and Petrakov, foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, interior minister Vadim Bakatin and Yakovlev -- once known as Gorbachev's alter ego and the intellectual godfather of reform -- have all drifted into political obscurity.
Only Shevardnadze's replacement, Alexander Bessmertnykh, represents any degree of reformist thinking, but his appointment appears to be Gorbachev's singular attempt to maintain some connection with the West. The Foreign Ministry itself seems to stand in limbo, an isolated bastion of political moderates in an increasingly hard-line regime.
At first, Gorbachev's hesitation about radical market reforms appeared to be only part of a larger pattern of social revolution that Bolsheviks call "two steps forward, one step back." For nearly six years, Gorbachev showed an uncanny sense of political timing, instituting reforms, then drawing back as the moment demanded.
But this turn toward hard-line reaction has been so thorough, so determined and unapologetic, that it is hard to see how it can be reversed with anything less than a prolonged, and possibly dangerous, political struggle. At a protest rally near Moscow's Red Square last week, the demonstrators' common sentiment was that Lithuania was only a beginning and that the Kremlin's urge to restore its own authority and preserve the union at all costs could eventually mean more bloodshed.
"The truth is, I would be surprised if this blitzkrieg stopped with Lithuania," said political scientist Andrannik Migranyan. "We would be lucky if it didn't continue on through Latvia and Estonia, and even Russia itself."
Possibilities for compromise seem to disappear with every passing event. The leader of the Russian republic, Boris Yeltsin, made it clear, for example, that Gorbachev's bid to persuade the republics to sign a new treaty redefining their relationship with the Soviet government now has almost no chance to succeed. "You don't sign a treaty with a noose around your neck," he said a few days after the bloodshed in Lithuania.
Reformists who came of age with Gorbachev and thought they shared a cause with him, have now grown disillusioned. Newspapers such as Moscow News, which once pressed for faster change while being careful to defend Gorbachev, now stand in outright opposition to the Soviet president.
"What is at issue? Is it merely ethnic relations or preserving a union of nations who have freely chosen their way of life?" columnist Len Karpinsky wrote this week. "No, it is a question of the compulsory preservation of both the totalitarian regime on the whole territory of the country, and the system of uniformity of all the republics linked not by their goodwill but, as before, by Moscow's despotic power."
In terms of raw power, the reformists in the republics stand no chance of prevailing against the central government. If the Kremlin had faced such a challenge in an earlier era, talk of a struggle would be naive.
But Gorbachev's own reforms, intentionally or not, have changed the political consciousness of this country. Suddenly, mass demonstrations, an independent press and labor strikes have become realities of Soviet life. Earlier this week, coal miners in Siberia only narrowly voted against staging a massive walkout to protest and the crackdown in the Baltics. If such strikes do break out in Russia or the other republics, the potential for turmoil and violence is beyond measure.
Dmitri Volkogonov, an army general who has won access to party archives to write a groundbreaking biography of former dictator Joseph Stalin, said recently that "social stagnation would be only the least distressing outcome" if the Kremlin is determined to abandon democratic reforms.
"We mustn't forget an even more ominous prospect -- civil war in a country full of atomic power stations and nuclear arsenals," Volkogonov said in a recent article. "This is a horrible prospect for the entire world."