Supporters of Mikhail Gorbachev have moved quickly to respond to the latest in a series of assaults on the pace and scope of his reforms. Taking advantage of the Soviet leader's absence on vacation, Kremlin No. 2 Yegor Ligachev launched an attack on fundamental aspects of perestroika (restructuring) during a televised speech from the Russian heartland of Gorky on Aug. 5. The burly white-haired Siberian, known for his conservative views, is running the country in Mr. Gorbachev's absence.
He warned of the danger of imitating the capitalist model through current market-oriented restructuring, complained about strikes by Soviet workers as a distortion of ``democratization,'' and argued that peaceful cooperation with capitalist countries ``only confuses the minds of the Soviet people and our friends abroad.''
Five days later, Gorbachev ally and Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev issued a virtual point by point rebuttal of Mr. Ligachev's speech. He outlined his vision of perestroika in comments to party workers in the economically freewheeling Baltic republic of Latvia.
``We are relearning Marxism ... but through experience, not by dogmas,'' he said, without referring to Ligachev's speech.
He defended the new forms of economic management endorsed by Gorbachev, including the creation of a private sector, and reaffirmed that perestroika's key political and moral sources were ``democracy, glasnost (openness), and responsibility.'' Mr. Yakovlev is responsible for aspects of ideology through his propaganda portfolio.
Yakovlev's speech was given extensive coverage by the nightly television news and, like his colleague's, published in the Communist Party daily Pravda.
Western diplomats point out that it is highly unusual for senior Politburo figures to make such high-profile statements on policy within the space of a few days.
``Ligachev is clearly being smoked out,'' one diplomat said, although it was uncertain whether Yakovlev had been called in to limit the damage or had decided personally to intervene.
Such contradictions at the top, analysts say, are inevitably felt at lower levels of the party apparatus, which is currently in the throes of a painful streamlining process.
In addition, the Soviet worker, long used to waiting for instructions from above, would think twice about joining in perestroika if he were receiving mixed messages from the Kremlin.
Before Gorbachev came to power in 1985 such public arguments would have been out of the question. But Soviet officials now attribute such differences of opinion to the manifestation of ``socialist pluralism'' under which people are entitled to their own points of view as long as communist principles are not challenged.
Only two months ago, Soviet television viewers had been treated to an unprecedented televised head-on confrontation, during the special Communist Party conference in Moscow, between Ligachev and his radical sparring partner, ousted Moscow party chief Boris Yeltsin.
Ligachev has on previous occasions distanced himself from Gorbachev's policies during the Soviet leader's vacations, and every time his remarks have led to reports of a Politburo split which had to be quelled by Gorbachev on his return. Soviet officials insist that while heated arguments can occur at Politburo meetings, the Kremlin rulers are united on the need for perestroika, and only differ on how fast to carry out the reforms.
Ligachev and his conservative constituency are concerned that perestroika could lead the country away from communism and alienate elder members of the community by denying the achievements of the past through the systematic denunciation of Stalinism.
Yakovlev apparently sought to address that fear in his speech, saying that new economic forms of management, such as contract leasing, profit-and-loss accounting and private cooperatives ``must complement what was done in the past, and not change it.''
As for Ligachev's future, analysts ruled out the possibility of his dismissal, even though he seems increasingly at odds with Gorbachev's goals. They said that his removal from the Politburo would create too much of a split, as he represents a large constituency of orthodox communists in the country.