In his first two years in power, Mikhail Gorbachev has made it clear that he plans a degree of structural change unprecedented in Soviet history. Early and occasional references to reform have been replaced by calls for a revolution. The Soviet leader, who took power March 11, 1985, no longer talks just of economic change, but of political and societal ``restructuring.''
There have been few actual changes so far. But Mr. Gorbachev has created a new atmosphere inside the Soviet Union and a new image abroad. He has also aroused the hostility of supporters of the status quo, both inside and outside the ruling Communist Party.
But the real challenge to Gorbachev's ambitions - and perhaps to his survival as Soviet leader - is only beginning, as he starts to carry out his policies.
He wants to create a dynamic, technologically advanced socialist superpower, capable of competing not just militarily with the West, but economically and ideologically as well. And the emphasis is on competition, not convergence. He wants to make the Soviet Union - and with it, communism - a workable political alternative to the Western democracy.
When Gorbachev came to power two years ago, his supporters say, the country was in a crisis. Under the rule of Leonid Brezhnev (1966-82) the economy had slumped, social problems had grown, and Soviet influence in the world had waned dramatically. To counter this, reformers are now calling for a Leninist restoration - a reinjection of what they feel were the essential elements of Vladimir Lenin's leadership: flexibility, openness, and dynamism.
Reformers admit that they face a tough task. ``Gorbachev's policies run counter to the interests of several million people,'' says one reformer, a staff member of the Central Committee. Another says, ``It's a political war.''
These officials say there is no alternative. ``We've tried administrative measures - shooting people, putting them in prison - and they don't work,'' a senior editor says.
And they warn that failure would be disastrous. ``It would probably mean the loss of our status as a great power,'' says the Central Committee staff member. ``It would destroy the balance of forces in the world. It would be a great blow for the idea of socialism, and it would practically cancel out the whole course of our history since [the Bolshevik Revolution of] 1917.''
Since 1985, Gorbachev has been trying to build up a momentum for change that would break through the massive inertia of the Soviet bureaucracy:
The policy of glasnost - openness in the news media - has subjected incompetent, corrupt, or conservative bureaucrats to unpleasant publicity.
Economic policies have been introduced emphasizing initiative and the financial self-reliance of enterprises. Some factories have already gone bankrupt. A limited degree of private enterprise has been legalized, and joint enterprises with the noncommunist world encouraged.
Gorbachev has recently called for greater ``democratization,'' including the election of party officials, industrial executives, and local representatives.
The Soviet leader has underlined the change in the political climate by releasing dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov from exile and pardoning some 150 other Soviet political prisoners (roughly 10 percent of all of such prisoners).
He has driven home his message in travels to the Far East, the south, the Baltic states, and in his impromptu lectures to crowds in the street. He has also stressed his impatience with the slowness of change. His Politburo colleagues are generally doing fewer of these things. Though most apparently back reform, many have yet to demonstrate that they want it to go as far as Gorbachev does.
The next two to three years will show whether Gorbachev has any hope of success. By 1990 he intends to have completed the fundamental ``restructuring'' of the country's economy.
Speaking to a long-postponed party Central Committee plenum in January, Gorbachev stressed the need for action, not discussion. One well-placed supporter of reform predicted a spurt of changes in the coming months: a press law that will reportedly guarantee the right to receive information from both inside and outside the country, a ``major'' extension of democratization to be introduced at a nationwide party conference, and reform of wholesale prices.
But the holding of a party conference has not been formally approved by the Central Committee; it will be discussed at the next plenum in June. And the failure of the January plenum to agree on the conference indicates that a significant part of the party leadership still has reservations about Gorbachev's revolution. It also means that the June meeting will be another crucial step for Gorbachev in his struggle for reform.
Gorbachev will be particularly vulnerable in the initial phase of economic reform. The atmosphere of debate and change over the last two years has caused ``a revolution in expectations,'' he noted last month. These will not be fulfilled in the immediate future.
Negative changes - social disruption and layoffs - will almost certainly precede improved consumer goods or housing. The state guarantees that the restructuring of industry will not include unemployment, but it does not guarantee that a laid-off worker will be able to find a job in the same town or even the same republic.
There are already complaints that one recent innovation, an independent quality-control system, has dislocated output in some enterprises, causing workers to lose their bonuses (often 30 percent of their salaries). The immediate effect is likely to be a dip in economic performance. Last year the economy grew 4.9 percent, according to official figures. Observers say it is unlikely to do so this year.
The disruptions could cause a backlash against reform, especially if hard-liners are running local party organizations.
One of the key paradoxes confronting Gorbachev as he tries to revolutionize Soviet society is the fact that the Communist Party, one of the main instruments of change, is itself in dire need of reform.
Gorbachev's control of the party center - for example, the Secretariat, which handles daily business when the ruling Politburo is not in session, and the propaganda organs - seems to be firm. He has recently been able to promote Alexander Yakovlev, his closest adviser, to nonvoting membership on the Politburo. But his hold on the regional party organizations does not appear to be complete.
He has removed prominent opponents: the party chiefs of Leningrad (July 1985), Moscow (December 1985), and the republic of Kazakhstan (December 1986). About nine regional party bosses have been replaced in the last nine months.
But the country's biggest party organization, in the republic of the Ukraine, remains fundamentally unreconstructed. Vladimir Shcherbitsky, its leader and a Brezhnev crony, is still in the Politburo, despite apparent attempts by Gorbachev to oust him. One reformer who has recently visited the Ukraine ironically described the situation there as ``quiet and orderly and [with] no sign of reforms.''
The local party organizations are probably Gorbachev's biggest challenge. Party leaders complain of the wait-and-see attitude of local personnel. The staunchly pro-reform party leadership of Moscow said last month that, of the city's party officials considered to be opposed to the new line or incapable of carrying it out, only a quarter had been removed.
Meanwhile, Soviet sources say that resistance to reform is increasing, as conservatives realize that Gorbachev means to do what he says.
The media are sensitive to Western suggestions that there is opposition to restructuring. They have recently criticized several newspapers for such reporting, including The Christian Science Monitor. But opposition does exist. One prominent supporter of the current policies spoke recently of his plans to confront ``hard-liners'' in his organization ``quickly, before they can organize.'' Another describes the actions of some conservative regional party leaders as ``sabotage.''
Supporters of change defend their experiments against ideological conservatives by arguing that socialism has already triumphed in the Soviet Union. This makes it more difficult for opponents to claim that such policies as the law on individual enterprise are in fact covert capitalism.
The vast majority of opponents of reform are, however, sitting very quietly waiting for the storm to pass.
Sergei Zalygin, editor of the influential literary journal Novy Mir, recently described the forces of ``Soviet socialist conservatism'' - ministries and massive bureaucracies such as the state planning commission, Gosplan - as having the attitude ``We can be patient. Then in four or five years we'll be back.''
First in a three-part series. Next: Soviet foreign policy under Gorbachev.