MOSCOW — THROUGH sheer tactical skill, Mikhail Gorbachev appears capable of holding his fractured Soviet Communist Party together through the end of its congress. But this feat is looking increasingly irrelevant. With each day of this landmark once-every-five-years convention - and with each salvo traded by conservatives and progressives - the cracks in the party are becoming more and more manifest.
After days of being pilloried by the conservatives who dominate the congress, reformists are fighting back. Gorbachev ally Alexander Yakovlev, who is in charge of the party's international relations, rebutted charges that he contributed to the ``loss'' of Eastern Europe.
``If a people turns its back on the party, it is a matter for the people,'' he said. ``By decision of the congress, or by decision of the Central Committee ... we cannot repeal the fact that ... people in West Germany live better than in the East.''
Politburo member Vadim Medvedev defended his performance as ideology chief by asking rhetorically, ``Do you want to say that ideology during the period of stagnation [under Leonid Brezhnev] was at its peak?''
Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, under steady fire over German reunification, retorted: ``The people of GDR [East Germany] are deciding their own fate, no one else.''
Mr. Yakovlev and Mr. Medvedev have already declared their intentions to leave the Politburo, and Mr. Shevardnadze has hinted he may do the same. Yakovlev's decision underscores the declining influence and importance of the Communist Party's top body in setting the nation's policy. Now, he says, he can concentrate his efforts as a member of Gorbachev's Presidential Council, where the real executive power now lies.
The highlight of the Congress so far, however, has been the appearance of Boris Yeltsin, who in the starkest of terms laid out his own ``change or die'' message to the largely conservative assemblage of Communists. He accused the party of losing touch with the people and warned of a fate similar to the Communists of Eastern Europe if the Soviet party doesn't follow the democratic desires of the people.
``Events are developing with extraordinary speed,'' Yeltsin concluded. ``Any attempts to slow them down will inevitably result in total historical defeat of the party. Only being ahead of events, only striving ahead together with all progressive forces of our society can give us hope that the party won't be lost.''
If the party does not change, he warned, ``the only thing to be inherited by the [party] apparatus will be the plaque with the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] abbreviation on it...Those who think the result could be anything other than that should remember the fate of the communist parties in Eastern Europe.''
Last Tuesday, with the Party Congress in session, Yeltsin convened the Russian Republic's parliament, which he chairs, in a pointed demonstration of where he believes the future of Soviet reform will be decided. Congress, he told Congress delegates, is determining the fate of the party - not of perestroika (restructuring).
If party leader Gorbachev's private session with local party bosses last Thursday is any indication, Yeltsin's message may have fallen on deaf ears. In one of the sharpest examples of intra-party discord, Gorbachev was verbally assaulted for ``not defending the party,'' according to the editor of the newspaper Rabochaya Tribuna, who sat in on the meeting despite a press ban.
A new base of power has been established - elected councils - and it's no longer clear who is more important, a council chairman or a party first secretary, complained the party leaders.
``A stupid thing has been done,'' called out a delegate. ``This artificial structure has been made legal and we are to find a way out of this mess - and no one wants to listen to us.''
In the end, Gorbachev is expected to pull the various strands of the party together long enough to adopt final Congress documents, but such a display of ``consolidation'' - a Congress buzzword - may be only an illusion. Anecdotal evidence from pro-reform delegates suggests many rank-and-file party members are poised to turn in their membership cards.