Moscow — Recent riots in Soviet Kazakhstan have thrown into sharp relief two issues: the longstanding ethnic tension in non-Russian parts of the Soviet Union and an intense political debate apparently taking place within the Communist Party leadership. The Soviet press was quick to connect last week's riots to the Kazakhstan party meeting Tuesday at which Dinmukhamed Kunayev, the regional party chief, was replaced by Gennady Kolbin, an ethnic Russian.
Official reports said several hundred students burned cars and set fire to a food store. Kazakhstan, in Soviet Central Asia, is one of the 15 republics that make up the Soviet Union.
Mr. Kunayev's fate fits into a broader debate at the top of the Soviet party leadership over the speed and vigor with which changes should be pushed through in the party structure. This debate apparently has held up a plenary meeting of the party Central Committee, now expected to open tomorrow.
News media reports of ``nationalist elements'' and ``hooligans'' rampaging to protest the decision to drop Kunayev is apparently being used by the Kremlin to further discredit Kunayev and facilitate his removal from the 12-man ruling Politburo. The sense of order and discipline - and above all the belief in the need for strong central power to prevent chaos in a multinational state - is deeply ingrained among conservatives and reformers alike.
The fate of Kunayev, a prot'eg'e of the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, will offer an indication of how the reform debate is going. Kunayev is expected to relinquish his Politburo position. His failure to do this soon could indicate that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and other reformists are meeting very serious opposition.
The detailed coverage of the riots is an example of the way glasnost, the policy of media ``openness,'' is used as a political weapon. In this case, the weapon was aimed at Kunayev.
The government's decision to allow dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov to return to Moscow was also given prompt coverage here. By contrast, a Soviet airliner crash 10 days ago, in which more than 70 people were killed, passed almost unmentioned.
Media reports of the riots coincided with an article in the party daily Pravda commemorating the 80th anniversary of the birth of Brezhnev, who ruled the country from 1964 to 1982. The article was unsigned, and thus probably the expression of official opinion. Slightly under half the piece offered mild approbation of the former leader; the rest engaged in less mild criticism. In his later years, the article said, due attention was not given to the ``acuity and urgency'' of the need for economic restructuring. ``Negative phenomena'' - the standard euphemism for corruption and abuse of privilege - were on the rise. So too were ``complacency and the feeling that all is permitted'' among the party organizations.
Criticism of political stagnation and abuses in the recent past is often voiced here, but it has not before been officially linked to Brezhnev. It seemed to underline the Gorbachev line that the country's deep internal problems must be given urgent and thorough attention. The article was, in fact, followed during the weekend by more criticism of regional party secretaries.
Meanwhile, there is no immediate sign that the riots have hurt the new Kazakhstan party chief, Mr. Kolbin. Over the weekend the media noted that he was guiding Mikhail Solomentsev, a Politburo member, around the republic's capital. Mr. Solomentsev is head of the Party Control Commission, which oversees party discipline and has been used elsewhere recently to look into ethnic tensions. Soviet television coverage of the Solomentsev visit indicated that he was paying particular attention to the problems of young people and food supplies.
The riots are, however, a disturbing reminder of the ethnic tensions that have occasionally flared up in Central Asia and other minority areas, such as Georgia. Ethnic Russians are a majority in Kazakhstan. The Sunni Muslim Kazakhs seem, however, to have retained a strong degree of linguistic cohesion. Despite official efforts to foster the Russian language, almost all regard Kazakh as their native language. According to official figures, only about half say they are fluent in Russian as a second language.
Ethnic Russians meanwhile are worried by another phenomenon: the high growth rate of the minority groups, especially Central Asians, in relation to the Slavic and Baltic population. Official figures for 1985 put the annual growth rate in the Russian Republic at 0.8 percent. Kazakhstan's growth rate is closer to 1.7. Other Central Asian republics are growing even faster: Tadzjikstan's rate is 3.29, Uzbekistan's 3.0. The rates in these two republics have registered a sharp spurt upward after a drop in the early 1970s.