RECENT discussions in the Soviet press and the publication of the Politburo-provided agenda for the upcoming Soviet Communist Party conference reveal the real power struggle in Soviet politics today. On one side, reform-minded Politburo members are allied with the grass-roots party membership - the top and bottom of the Party. They seek to trim the Party ranks and remove the Party from the day-to-day running of the economy.
On the other side sits the middle level of the Party apparatus - the midcareer Party apparatchiki - bureaucrats. They remain quite comfortable with the Brezhnev-type, career-oriented character of the 1970s, and hope that it will continue.
The reformers paint themselves as neo-Leninists who are restoring the principles of Party democracy that were brutally removed under Stalin, saw a glimmer of light under Nikita Khrushchev, and once again receded under Leonid Brezhnev's complacency. They glowingly refer to the ``true Leninist tradition in their effort to cut back the size of the apparatus and restore lively discussions to Party forums.
The apparatchiki are less vocal. Whereas five years ago Sovietologists had to read between the lines to garner what the reformers' were thinking, today we must employ the same tools to divulge the conservatives' perspective. These techniques reveal the conservatives' grudging acceptance of economic reform, but stubborn resistance to political changes. They can accept perestroika, but not glasnost.
Yet the reformers have found an easy target to attack - the Brezhnev legacy. As Nikita Khrushchev once denounced Stalin's cult of personality, Mikhail Gorbachev now derides Mr. Brezhnev's ``years of stagnation.''
The general population is comfortable with attacks against Brezhnev, but more reticent to defame the memory of Stalin. The Russian people find it much easier to deride an incompetent, self-serving authoritarian like Brezhnev, than a war-winning builder of industrial power like Stalin. Though many Soviet citizens will admit Stalin's excesses, they still respect his achievements.
Much of the general population, therefore, simply does not want to hear attacks on Stalin.
The party apparatchik, however, is more concerned about the attacks on Brezhnev, who is credited with restoring the power of the apparatus following Stalin's dictatorship and Khrushchev's blunders. He created many careers, and brought tranquility to party ranks. Yet Mr. Gorbachev argues that Brezhnev brought malaise and ineffectiveness. He now seeks to do something about it.
The current party line promotes ``intraparty democracy.'' Open discussion, multiple candidates, limited terms of office, and secret ballots are the key ingredients discussed so far. It is quite clear that this policy called demokratizatsiia is aimed squarely at the middle of the Party apparatus.
Less clear, however, is whether this besieged group has anywhere to turn. Western analysts point to Yegor Ligachev, the second ranking member of the Politburo, as the possible savior of the apparatchiki. His recent and public bow of obedience to Gorbachev, however, indicates that he lacks the muscle to push the conservative agenda. Right now, the middle level of the Party has a body but lacks a head.
Neither can the apparatchiki appeal to the general population, which has little sympathy for the overprivileged and underworked bureaucrats.
So what can the party officials do? In one word stall. They can impede economic and political reform by ignoring Gorbachev's directives. They can practice bureaucratic autonomy. They may not be able to stop policy formation, but they can alter its interpretation and slow its implementation. In short, they can do what they have been doing for the last 20 years.
The party conference this week will be a real test of the apparatus' ability to stall reform.
If the career apparatchiki can prevent a large turnover of the Central Committee membership, Gorbachev's ability to restore momentum to his reform program will be in doubt.
Gorbachev himself has set out the task for the upcoming conference: ``The conference is to create the political, ideological, and organizational prerequisites that would not only guarantee the irreversibility of the processes of perestroika and democratization, but also contribute decisively to unfolding these processes and furthering them.... We have entered, figuratively speaking, the boost phase of perestroika.''
After the party conference we will see whether the rocket of reform will reach a safe, comfortable orbit, or falter in mid stratosphere.
Robert W. Clough is a research analyst at the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis-based research organization.