MOSCOW — WHILE the Gulf war captures attention here, the Soviet Union's war at home is far from over. Russian leader Boris Yeltsin's televised call Tuesday for the resignation of President Mikhail Gorbachev and the transfer of power to a council of republican leaders was dramatic evidence that the struggle for power continues. The Yeltsin-Gorbachev battle is merely the core of a broader conflict between the Kremlin's version of central-directed rule and the republican bid for a decentralized division of power.
The key issues in that fight center on the harsh economic stabilization policies of Soviet Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov and Mr. Gorbachev's effort to gain support for a new treaty of union in a controversial March 17 national referendum.
Mr. Yeltsin, appearing at times nervous, staked out a tough stance of opposition to the government's economic policies, particularly a planned several-fold increase in retail prices. He suggested that a better concept of union could emerge from the alliance of the leaders of the five largest republics - Russia, Byelorussia, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.
But Yeltsin's harshest words were reserved for Gorbachev, his one-time friend turned rival, whom he accused of abandoning reform for the sake of personal power.
That Yeltsin holds such views is not surprising. But up till now he has avoided such a frontal confrontation. The decision to go onto open attack may be a reflection of weakness rather than strength, however.
Particularly since he intervened in January in support of the pro-independence Baltic governments, Yeltsin has been the target of a harsh polemical campaign, spearheaded by the conservative Communist press.
Within the Russian parliament, Yeltsin has also been under attack from the faction of Russian Communists. A group of parliamentary leaders issued a statement yesterday, proposing convening an extraordinary Congress of Russian Peoples Deputies at which they hope to oust Yeltsin as parliament head. Yeltsin's support in that body, the ultimate legislative authority, is weak.
The move is an attempt to preempt Yeltsin's strategy to create a directly elected presidency that would give Yeltsin a popular mandate and free him from the threat of a no-confidence vote. Yeltsin expects to hold a direct election in July or August, followed by parliamentary elections that could produce a more radically minded legislature, says Yeltsin aide Pavel Voshanov.
Yeltsin has depended on his huge popular following, but even that is slipping, in part because of the fierce orchestrated media assault on him. A Russian parliament poll of Muscovites, considered a stronghold of pro-Yeltsin sentiment, showed a sharp drop in support for Yeltsin, though not a corresponding gain for Gorbachev. From November to January, Yeltsin dropped from 33 percent backing to 19 percent, while Gorbachev went from 26 percent to 19 as well. About 53 percent polled could not name a political leader worthy to be president.
But the key crack in Yeltsin's strength is his failure to construct a strong alliance of the core republics. According to his earlier plan, the group of four republics (Uzbekistan was added later) would draft its own union treaty. This would be a bottom-up approach, based on the network of bilateral, horizontal economic and political pacts signed between the republics. After the Baltic crisis, Yeltsin tried to organize a summit in Minsk of the republican leaders to announce this, but the meeting failed to materialize.
Yeltsin aides suspect Kremlin pressure played a role, reflected in public criticism that the republican leaders were seeking to form a ``parallel central authority'' and destabilize the country.
Yeltsin was forced to settle for a meeting of the four leaders, joined by Uzbekistan, following the meeting last Saturday of the Federation Council, which groups the heads of all 15 republics. They agreed to set up a body to control the implementation of the bilateral economic pacts between them, to ensure a flow of supplies to enterprises in their republics. They also agreed to oppose the price-reform policy and proposals for the formation of a new Soviet cabinet presented at the Council meeting.
But at a joint press conference on Wednesday at least two of those leaders - Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk - disassociated themselves from Yeltsin's call for Gorbachev to step aside. ``At this turning point, when we are experiencing economic crisis, Yeltsin actually is organizing a political crisis,'' Mr. Nazarbayev said.
Both men also were careful to make clear they opposed Gorbachev's policies as well, particularly on the sharing of power with the republics. Mr. Kravchuk echoed Yeltsin's view that Gorbachev ``began to veer from his own [earlier] statements.''
The republics, or at least eight who are still committed to a renewed union, are focusing their efforts on a working group that is charged with finalizing the draft of the new union treaty, based on the Gorbachev proposal. Those negotiations have become increasingly heated, particularly on the vital issue of division of powers between the central government and the republics.
The other republics refused to participate, many of them publicly opting for the path to independence. The three Baltic republics, Moldavia, and the Caucasus republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan have not joined the talks. All except Azerbaijan have also either refused to hold the March 17 vote or will conduct, as Lithuania did already, a vote asking whether the population favors independence rather than continued union.