The long-delayed plenum of the Communist Party Central Committee, which opens today, will mark a ``radical'' move forward in Mikhail Gorbachev's plans to restructure the Soviet Union. So says a party official sympathetic to the Soviet leader. Another asserts that the plenum will be a ``watershed'' in Mr. Gorbachev's reform program.
Western observers, meanwhile, have been predicting major changes in the ruling Politburo.
A more modest prediction is that the discussion of some undramatic but highly important issues may provide answers to two key questions: How firmly entrenched is Gorbachev's position? And how far does he see eye to eye with the No. 2 man in the Politburo, Yegor Ligachev?
Speculation over the lateness of the plenum, which should have been held in November, has centered on personnel issues - particularly efforts by the present leadership to remove from the Politburo two important members of the Brezhnev Old Guard, Vladimir Shcherbitsky and Dinmukhamed Kunayev.
Mr. Kunayev lost his position as Kazakhstan party chief last December and will almost certainly be dropped from the Politburo. Recent comments by Mr. Ligachev suggest that Mr. Shcherbitsky may well follow him soon. But so far Shcherbitsky has not lost his position as Ukrainian party boss, and may thus hang on for the time being.
Politburo changes would be important, especially if Gorbachev is able to bring in some uncompromising supporters like the Moscow party chief Boris Yeltsin, currently a candidate (nonvoting) member of the Politburo, or Gennady Kolbin, who is now trying to clean up Kazakhstan.
But discussion of some slightly drier subjects will be equally if not more important. One is the party's policies toward its own ``cadre,'' or middle-level officials - an area where Gorbachev apparently wants tough action, but has so far been unable to obtain it. The other is economic policy, a subject on which Gorbachev has once again expressed deep frustration in recent speeches.
Cadre policy is one of the few areas in which it is almost possible to document differences between Gorbachev and Ligachev. Before the 27th Communist Party Congress last March, some senior leaders - including, it is believed, Gorbachev - circulated draft proposals for tighter control by the party over its own cadres. One of the regular complaints of the official press recently has been that party officials are virtually untouchable. One change the reformers sought was a limit on the tenure of a party cadre in any single post. A number of senior leaders, including Ligachev, opposed the proposal.
``We should be looking not at the calendar, but at the true results of [officials],'' Ligachev later told a party meeting. The comment was excised from the official report in the party daily, Pravda.
The Ligachev point of view prevailed, and the subject faded out of the picture. Recently, however, Central Committee staff members have been saying that the key issue at the plenum would be cadre policy, particularly the need to make cadres accountable for their mistakes.
Both Gorbachev and Ligachev seem to be equally impatient at the slow pace of economic development. Gorbachev's frustration with this was perceptible even in the tightly edited text of an address he made last week to a Central Committee conference on agriculture. Contrary to usual practice the addresses by Gorbachev and other leaders were published in edited form only over the weekend.
Recent examples suggest that when Gorbachev's speeches are distributed late, the delay has been because of the leadership's desire to tone down the harshness of the Soviet leader's remarks.
The published comments were quite blunt. The country's economy had started to ``spin its wheels'' in 1972, he told the meeting. It had continued to do so for the next 10 years.
Speaking at the same meeting, Ligachev went out of his way to give favorable mention to the theories of Tatyana Zaslavskaya, the economist whose emphasis on the need to develop the human factor in the economy - through financial incentives and competition - have led to considerable controversy recently.
Ligachev's comments on agricultural production cannot have made the Ukraine's Shcherbitsky very comfortable. In one breath he listed three important problem areas - the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Voronezh (in the Russian republic).
Ligachev's comments made it clear that the leadership was unhappy above all with the quality of the party leadership in these three areas. Shcherbitsky's discomfort was probably deepened by the fact that the party leaders of Kazakhstan and Voronezh have already been dismissed.
It also emerged from Ligachev's speech that the Central Committee had already discussed the work of the Ukrainian party leadership, and passed a formal resolution summing up its views. This resolution has not, however, been published.
Failure to publish the resolutions is rare, observers here say.
``They are partly intended as study documents or warnings for the nationwide party organization,'' a specialist said.
One possibility is that the leadership decided to withhold publication of the embarrassing document to give the Ukrainian party time to rectify its own faults. Ligachev's pointed reference to the resolution indicates that time may be up.