Gorbachev could use party conference for shakeup

A Communist Party Central Committee official said yesterday that party conferences, an idea recently revived by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, are ``essentially equivalent'' to a party congress. Writing in the party daily Pravda, Igor Shvets, the official, described how Soviet leaders have used conferences to change party statutes, launch important policies, and alter the composition of the party leadership. The next conference, the first since 1941, is scheduled for June 1988.

Supporters of Mr. Gorbachev's policies view it as an important milestone in the reform program, but have so far been vague about what it might actually achieve. The next party congress, which has the power to elect a new Central Committee, is not due until 1991, and it has been suggested that reformers would like the use a conference as a sort of midterm congress that would remove uncooperative or inefficient members of the Central Committee.

Party congresses are held every four to five years, and are regarded as the party's supreme policymaking body. One of their main functions is the election of the Central Committee. Plenary sessions of the Central Committee (``plenums'') meet every six months.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Mr. Shvets, an official of the organizational-party-work department of the Central Committee noted that earlier conferences have been empowered to drop ineffective Central Committee members, and replace them from the ranks of candidate (nonvoting members).

Under rules passed in 1939, Shvets said, not more than one-fifth of the Central Committee could be changed in this way. New candidate members could also be appointed to replace those promoted. Shvets noted that this rule was a historical precedent: It is no longer in force. But, he added, it was possible that additional Central Committee members would be elected during the 1988 conference.

Gorbachev raised the idea of a conference this January, at a plenum of the Central Committee. The plenum failed to take any decision on the subject. This, coupled with the lack of public discussion of the idea between January and June suggested that the proposal was meeting resistance inside the leadership. Shortly before the June plenum, party officials seemed unsure that this meeting would resolve the issue.

The fact that the conference was endorsed by the meeting is viewed as another significant success for Gorbachev. In a review of historical precedents, Shvets noted in Pravda that the Prague Conference of 1912 had expelled ``opportunist Mensheviks'' from the party. In fact the party under Vladimir Lenin elected a new Central Committee.

The April 1917 conference defined the attitude of Lenin's Bolshevik Party to the February 1917 revolution. Conferences in 1919 and 1922 changed the party statutes. Other conferences took decisions that recall the present debates and reform efforts. The 1921 party conference endorsed Lenin's New Economic Policy, a program that in many ways serves as a model for the current reforms.

It also advocated the idea of a ruble backed with gold: One of the major discussions here today centers round the need to make the ruble convertible into foreign currencies.

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