MIKHAIL GORBACHEV allowed the 19th Communist Party Conference to turn into an electrifying TV drama of openness and political conflict. But how open is open? How spontaneous was the meeting? More important, how open and democratic will General Secretary Gorbachev's Soviet Union turn out to be? For the moment, the world is mesmerized by Mr. Gorbachev's self-assured performance in steering 4,991 delegates, some of whom were remarkably critical of his reforms, through a series of stormy moments toward general approval of his policies. The high points will reverberate for a long time to come:
Vladimir Melnikov takes the podium to denounce officials whom he holds responsible for the USSR's economic stagnation. He demands President Andrei Gromyko's resignation, even as Mr. Gromyko is presiding.
Former Moscow chief Boris Yeltsin, a strong supporter of perestroika (restructuring), who has fallen into disfavor, petitions for instant political rehabilitation - not rehabilitation 50 years from now as was the case with Stalin's victims.
Yegor Ligachev, Gorbachev's No. 2 man in the Communist Party, rises to rebut Mr. Yeltsin and reveals, rather poignantly, some of the repressions his family suffered during the terror years of Joseph Stalin.
Now that the fireworks are over, it is worth looking more closely at some of the mundane aspects of the conference. The guiding hand of Gorbachev and the Politburo leadership emerges all too clearly.
Surprising as it may seem, the conference was not really open at all, but was conducted mostly behind closed doors.
The foreign press, and most of the Soviet press, were excluded. True, Soviet television was present to record the scene for delayed transmissions. But this was not the running coverage that C-SPAN provides of US congressional debates.
A shroud still covers the procedures used to guide the deliberations. The steering committee (the Presidium, in Soviet parlance), the Secretariat, the reporting and credentials committees, were all chosen in the same old way. Gorbachev and Co. proposed the candidates; the delegates approved them unanimously without question.
During the debate, votes were taken on Gorbachev proposals for reducing Communist Party influence at the local level, and other issues. Official spokesmen revealed a token opposition of several hundred delegates. It takes the US Senate 45 minutes to go through a roll call vote. Did the conference really spend hours on the tally of 4,991 delegates? Were the nays and yeas accurately recorded? We don't know.
How was debate regulated? At the end of four days, there were still 200 delegates who wanted to speak but were refused. Who made the decision to cut off debate? Did Gorbachev do it because he saw that the criticisms were getting out of hand? Were those deprived of time given a chance to publish their remarks? Will the full proceedings be published promptly as US debates are reported in the Congressional Record? We don't know.
Beyond the conference, of course, the greater question is how far Soviet openness, or glasnost, can go. It is obvious that many Soviet citizens and some political leaders are uncomfortable by too much openness, too much dirty linen in public. Others, largely intellectuals, feel that openness has not gone nearly far enough.
It is clear there are both explicit and discrete limits to Gorbachev's glasnost, and, consequently, there are limits on public debate and popular participation.
Glavlit, the official censorship apparatus, holds: The general secretary should not be directly criticized, ridiculed, or lampooned. Soviet publications should never reveal state or military secrets. Nor should they agitate for hostility or war abroad or print pornography at home.
The more insidious limitation on openness is the Soviet citizen's inbred reluctance to swim against the Kremlin's currents.
This reluctance has been bred by decades - if not centuries - of secret police intimidation, contradictory laws, and unpublished ordinances that make it impossible for any ordinary citizen to live a life free of some kind of wrongdoing.
Fear (strakh) remains an element of life that Soviets often talk about. The most powerful inhibition on openness and democracy is each individual's ``internal censor,'' which seeds survival through caution and circumspection.
Mikhail Gorbachev permitted an incredible show at the Communist Party conference. If he is sincere and able, he will now have to reduce the internal surveillance role of the KGB secret police, strengthen the rights of citizens and the judiciary, and demonstrate over time that glasnost is irreversible.
Only then will the USSR really approach openness.
Nicholas Daniloff is a resident fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center for Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University.