Russian Decree Splits Communists

Hard-liners seek to block decree, while liberals push for change of method

A BAN on political activity in workplaces in the Russian Federation has made illegal the organizational network used by the Communist Party to implement its will for over 70 years.Coming at a time when communists are beset by infighting, some democratic political leaders hoped the ban would break the party's will to govern. But Russian Communist Party members remain defiant. "Those who think the decree will destroy the party are fooling themselves," says Viktor Luzhnov, a conservative party secretary in Vladimir, an industrial center of 350,000 about 150 miles northeast of Moscow. "It may not be as powerful as it once was, but it will still be the most organized party in the country." Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin last month issued the decree banning party cells from operating at factories and government offices throughout the giant republic. The ban took effect Aug. 4, but compliance appears to be sporadic thus far. The decree prohibits all parties from agitating at workplaces, but it is aimed at the communists, who enjoyed a monopoly on political power until last year. While most communists agree the decree will not cause their party to fade from the political stage, questions of its future role have spawned a bitter debate.

Party infighting Reform-minded communists have done little to oppose the ban; many accept the party's supporting role during the country's transition to a market economy. The ban is not cause for alarm, they say, because factory party cells were already obsolete. Many had dissolved because of declining interest. But hard-liners say the ban on politics in the workplace is unconstitutional and a violation of Helsinki human-rights accords. At the party's request, the Soviet Constitutional Compliance Committee is reviewing the ban's legality, but a decision is not expected until early September. The communists' quandary in Vladimir largely reflects the situation across the republic. "A certain passivity has appeared among party members," says Mikhail Vyazgin, the chief of a factory party bureau at the Spectr Scientific Research Association, which develops and produces machine parts in Vladimir. "The decisions taken at party meetings aren't as important as before, so fewer people attended in the months before the decree." And in reality, the decree has done little to stop party activity at workplaces. For example, to comply with the ban Mr. Vyazgin merely moved his bureau to a building near the Spectr factory. Now, the party bureau serves not only the 96 party members from the 640-employee facility, but the neighborhood around the plant. "Since we moved off the factory property, we've widened our contacts with the people," he says. The party bureau is now dealing with "pertinent problems and no longer meddling in unimportant factory matters," Vyazgin continues. "It's forcing us to change our methods, and as a result we may gain popularity." Conservative apparatchiks are preoccupied with the symbolic importance of the party's presence in the factories, Vyazgin says, and their failure to realistically evaluate the situation hinders the implementation of reforms. At the Vladimir Communist Party headquarters, party officials appear to see little need to make substantive changes, despite the party's plummeting popularity. Mr. Luzhnov merely touches on reform while talking at length about resisting the ban, predicting it will never be fully implemented. "There is no need to run to fulfill this decree," he says from his simple desk in a room dominated by a portrait of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. "We believe this decree will not stabilize society, but will instead only further destabilize the situation."

Gorbachev's role Luzhnov reserves his harshest words not for Yeltsin, but for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who is also the national party leader. Mr. Gorbachev has been only mildly critical of the Yeltsin decree. "[Gorbachev] hasn't done all that he could to defend the interests of the party in this matter," Luzhnov says. In the end, the ban, as well as the formation of a new democratic faction within the Russian Communist Party, may have helped shift the balance of power in the intraparty struggle toward the reformers. Already there has been a major shakeup in the staunchly conservative Russian party leadership. At a Central Committee session last week, the arch-conservative Ivan Polozkov was replaced by the more pragmatic Valentin Kuptsov as Russian party leader. Like the Soviet president, Mr. Kuptsov has been restrained in his approach to the ban. While Mr. Polozkov's removal is a positive step, Vyazgin says, all the "old thinkers" must be jettisoned before the party can completely transform itself. Getting rid of the conservative opposition may be what Gorbachev intends to do. At the coming congress, a new party program is expected to win approval, discarding traditional Marxist-Leninist thinking in favor of a more market-oriented approach. That could force a devastating split in the party, some political observers say. But like the ban, a split is nothing to be feared, Vyazgin says. "What is needed is flexibility, and that will be impossible to achieve unless all party members agree with the new program," he says.

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