MOSCOW, FEB. 3 -- Wizened veterans of the Soviet human-rights movement, their numbers thinned by emigration, exile and death, gathered at a scruffy school auditorium here this weekend to discuss the urgent need to renew their old vigilance and moral force.

Grim and intent, they gathered not to indulge in nostalgic self-congratulation over the battles of the Leonid Brezhnev era. Instead, they talked darkly of the need to oppose what some were calling the "Latin Americanization of the Soviet Union," an unstable new world in which the main human-rights issues are no longer emigration or religious freedoms.

"Now we live in an even more dangerous world, where we are no longer sure who is in charge, where the army and the KGB try to pull off military coups in the Baltic states, where rogue groups like the "Black Beret" police in Riga take over buildings and kill people with no evident authority," said Alexei Smirnov, secretary of the Moscow Helsinki Group and a former political prisoner.

Physicist Yuri Orlov, a leading activist who was exiled to the West in 1986 but whose Soviet citizenship was restored last year, said that President Mikhail Gorbachev's turn to the right, his evident defense of empire and common cause with the military and the KGB "make it clear that we all have to face facts. The man is no democrat, certainly not in the Western sense. We cannot be surprised if the authoritarian side of Gorbachev's leadership grows even more intense in the next few months or years."

The issue of human rights, once a centerpiece of superpower negotiations, drifted into the background in recent years as Gorbachev freed political prisoners, opened up emigration and travel opportunities and provided unprecedented liberties to the press, political organizations and religious groups.

But with the crackdown on separatism in the Soviet Baltic republics and the resurgence of hard-line figures and policies in the Kremlin, the United States and other Western countries have grown disturbed about the fate of human rights here. The State Department last week issued a report that began by declaring 1990 a "landmark" for democratization but then turned ominous, warning that the military crackdown in the Baltics had "dangerous implications" for the Soviet Union.

The report, which is mandated by Congress and is an important element in the development of U.S. foreign aid and diplomatic policy, said that "toward the end of the year and early in 1991, the {Soviet} central government's moves to reassert authority over the republics, particularly the use of military force in Latvia and Lithuania, raised concern over the future of the recent reforms."

The report pointed out the fragility and inconsistency of Gorbachev's reforms, saying "they were unevenly implemented in the country as a whole, and many are not yet secured by law or buttressed by an independent judiciary."

Cathy Fitzpatrick, a human-rights observer with the George Soros Foundation who attended the conference here, said: "You'd have to look at the situation here as evolving into more like what it was like under Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile. The states of emergency, the emerging military -- it all speaks of that. One difference though is that in Chile there were remnants of free enterprise and democratic institutions. But here you have a crumbling totalitarian state trying desperately to hang on. The potential dangers are hard to imagine."

Fitzpatrick, who also has investigated allegations of Soviet abuses as an observer for the human-rights monitoring group Helsinki Watch, said that "suspicious deaths," such as the killing last year of dissident priest Alexander Men, have gone "way up" in the past year, but he added that exact statistics in that category were unavailable.

The battle lines in the current political struggle have become starkly clear. Hard-liners in the Communist Party's policy-making Central Committee and the military hierarchy no longer hedge their contempt for democratic political forces or for Gorbachev's ideological trespasses of the past. The hard-liners are in the ascendant, and it shows in the confidence of their public rhetoric.

"Now it is clear to everyone that the perestroika reforms designed in 1985 and begun by the party and the people as a renewal of socialism . . . have failed," said senior Communist Party official Ivan Polozkov at a Central Committee session last week.

Polozkov, who heads the party organization in the Soviet Union's Russian republic and is a member of the top executive body of the Soviet party, said that Gorbachev's emphasis on "common human values" instead of a traditional Marxist class approach to policy had been a gross ideological mistake. The political situation had gotten out of hand, he said; a multi-party system could not be discussed.

If Gorbachev disagreed with the criticism at the Central Committee meeting or had any answer at all, the official press did not report it.

Human-rights activists became skeptical long ago of Gorbachev's reformist motives. Now they see him as a lost cause. "It's tragic," Orlov said. "Gorbachev is part true believer and part captive of the system he was brought up in. His maneuverings are now a cause of instability."

With the hard-liners reasserting their power so forcefully, human-rights activists and democracy advocates find themselves struggling to forge a common language and a structure of opposition.

Many, if not most, of the leading human-rights activists of the Brezhnev era are gone. Andrei Sakharov, who was a bridge between the underground movement of the 1970s and the public opposition movements of the Gorbachev era, died in December 1989. Other former leaders, such as Anatoli Marchenko, Yuli Daniel and Andrei Amalrik, also are dead, and many more have emigrated to Israel, the United States and Western Europe.

Most of the leaders of the current opposition movements are too young to remember the dissident years, or they spent the '60s and '70s in lives of political compromise or -- like Russian leader and populist politician Boris Yeltsin -- as Communist Party apparatchiks.

But while the old dissident movement was largely hidden from the general public, Gorbachev's own reforms allowed the influence, language and demands of human-rights activists to enter Soviet society.

"And so the genie is out of the bottle," said Larissa Bogaraz, a heroic figure among dissidents, who was one of a tiny group that dared 23 years ago to unfurl protest banners in Red Square denouncing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. "This is our real hope -- that no one is capable of turning back history."

Bogaraz said human-rights leaders who have been elected to office -- figures such as Sergei Kovalev in the Russian parliament and Vyacheslav Chernovil and Mikhailo and Bogdan Horyn in the Ukrainian legislature -- would have to "teach their fellow politicians the lessons of opposition and the value of moral force."

"As activists," Bogaraz said, "our job is to heighten people's understanding of rights and also of organization. There was never any history of civil and human rights here, and the Gorbachev era has not changed that to a profound degree."

"A lot of the old dissidents are dead or gone or tired out, but there are enough of us around to help provide a sense of experience," said Yuri Kisilyev, a leader for 20 years of the handicapped-rights movement here. "A sense of human rights has to be the base of any successful opposition movement."

The human-rights veterans, once dismissive of all Communist leaders, past and present, now look to Yeltsin as the force around which an opposition can organize and develop. Orlov, for one, noted that Sakharov helped influence and mold Yeltsin when the two were involved in 1989 in forming the Interregional Group, a radical-reform faction in the Soviet legislature.

"We were all very hesitant about Yeltsin at first, but he has proved capable of change and understanding," said Kovalev, a former political prisoner and now chairman of the Russian parliament's human-rights committee. "Yeltsin and his popular support are going to be vital to any battle for human rights and reform."