Yegor Ligachev's career is ending, Soviet political observers say. Critical assessments of the man who, until very recently, ranked second in the leadership are already being prepared for some of the more outspoken Soviet publications. Now, analysts are trying to piece together how and when his star began to wane. The major blow fell last Friday at a hurriedly convened meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee. The session lasted just 60 minutes, Soviet sources say. Mikhail Gorbachev did nearly all the talking, then received unanimous support for his proposed changes. The unanimity, one Soviet source conceded, was perhaps partly due to his listeners' dumbfoundment.
Mikhail Shatrov, a playwright whose political instincts and information are usually highly reliable, says that the changes passed at last Friday's plenum are even more significant than they first appeared.
Until now, Mr. Ligachev held the informal but generally recognized title of second secretary. As such he chaired sessions of the Secretariat, the executive body second only to the Politburo. In an interview Wednesday, Mr. Shatrov said that he believed the Secretariat's role would be sharply limited or perhaps disappear. A new ``team'' seems to be in charge, he said, composed of men like Mr. Gorbachev, Alexander Yakovlev, Vadim Medvedev, first Vice-President Anatoly Lukyanov, and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.
As second secretary, Ligachev had wide-ranging powers. These, according to well-informed Soviet sources, included party personnel (cadre) policy, ideology, and foreign relations. He has now lost most of these: Ideology becomes the province of Mr. Medvedev; foreign policy, of Mr. Yakovlev; and cadre policy, the responsibility of Georgi Razumovsky. Each man heads what is now called a commission to handle these subjects.
In the future, Shatrov believes, ``each of the new commissions will resolve questions within its competence, and if something needs higher consideration, then it will be passed on to the Politburo.'' Commissions will handle issues that would previously have been discussed by the Secretariat, he added.
Ligachev is left with agriculture - an important but limited area of expertise. Recent comments by Communist Party officials on such crucial areas as nationality relations and reforming the Central Committee apparatus make it clear that they view two men as guiding policy: Gorbachev and Yakovlev.
Soviet observers - including a senior Communist Party official, and several prominent supporters of reform - tend to feel that the final decision to move against Ligachev was taken in August, during Gorbachev's vacation. Exactly what precipitated the decision is a subject of speculation. But in the early summer, supporters of reform began to express growing concern that public disillusionment with perestroika (restructuring) had reached dangerous proportions. The need to act may have been underlined, diplomatic sources say, by blunt briefings that Gorbachev received from his economic advisers during his vacation.
But several usually well-informed Soviets believe that Ligachev's comments on ideology, made in Gorky on Aug. 5, were the last straw. There Ligachev took issue with a central element of reform ideology: that ``common interests of mankind'' took precedence over the Marxist idea of class struggle. In his speech, Ligachev brusquely reasserted the importance of a class analysis. KGB chief Viktor Chebrikov echoed Ligachev's ideas in an interview in Pravda in early September, just before Gorbachev returned from vacation. (During exactly the same period in the summer of 1987, Ligachev and Mr. Chebrikov made statements differing sharply with the reformist line on major policy matters.)
Ligachev left Moscow Sept. 8 or 9, for a vacation that was due to end about Oct. 3. Gorbachev returned just as Ligachev left, and almost immediately set off for the Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk. There, a well-publicized series of meetings with irate members of the Siberian public dramatized the need for a rapid acceleration in the reform program.
Soviet observers also note that Gorbachev carefully corrected Ligachev's views on ideology during a visit to Shushenskoye, the village where Lenin was once exiled.
On Sept. 15 Fyodor Burlatsky, a publicist believed close to Gorbachev, published an article that attacked former leader Leonid Brezhnev, forcefully reasserted the radical reform agenda, and took a thinly disguised swipe at Andrei Gromyko and Chebrikov.
Communist Party officials were reportedly told Monday, Sept. 26, of the planned plenum. Ligachev, who is believed to have considerable support among regional party leaders, had virtually no time to marshal his forces.
Surprise has played an important role in Gorbachev's career on at least two occasions. In March, 1985, a Politburo meeting to discuss the successor to Konstantin Chernenko was convened so fast that two of Gorbachev's main opponents, Vladimir Shcherbitsky and Dinmukhamed Kunayev, were unable to return in time to attend. And at this summer's party conference Gorbachev sprang another surprise by calling for a presidential system of government. The strongest previous hint of such an idea had come in an article by Mr. Burlatsky.
Observers like Shatrov say that liberal and relatively more conservative leaders began to move away from each other after a Central Committee plenum in January 1987, when the leadership called for a radical approach to change.
Last March conservatives made a determined effort to roll back reform. On March 13, as Gorbachev was planning to leave for a state visit to Yugoslavia, an article was published in a major newspaper, Sovietskaya Rossiya. Signed by Nina Andreyeva, a Leningrad lecturer with an alleged track record of anonymous denunciations, the article was eventually denounced as an antireform political platform.
Reformers have since alleged publicly that Ligachev was behind it. But for 10 days there seems to have been a near-perfect balance of power between reformers and conservatives.
When an intellectual tried to publish a rebuttal to the letter, she was told on March 22 that her article had been ``banned by the censor.'' She and colleagues reportedly contacted Yakovlev, Gorbachev's closest Politburo associate. He told them that he could do nothing. The ``only chance,'' he reportedly said, was to appeal directly to Gorbachev. He is then said to have himself delivered the appeal to Gorbachev. Gorbachev replied favorably, and the anti-Andreyeva push began.
Despite the incident, Ligachev's influence remained great. ``He's like my chief designer,'' a top Soviet editor recalled during the summer. ``I can decide policy, but he can destroy the message's impact.'' Now, reformers conclude with something bordering on euphoria, the chief spoiler has gone.