This week Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will ask the country's parliament to abolish itself. The signs are that the body, the Supreme Soviet, will do so with little more than a murmur of complaint. The Supreme Soviet's examination of potentially momentous changes in the political system is proving to be a subdued affair. The proposals - a draft law on elections and a set of constitutional amendments - are intended to create a powerful presidential system with a standing parliament. Reformers here hope this will give Mr. Gorbachev the authority to force through fundamental political and economic change.
None of the 1,500 Supreme Soviet deputies have expressed profound doubts about the idea. One of the key issues - whether the proposals give the top leader too much uncontrolled power - has scarcely been addressed.
But in their own way, the speeches graphically illustrate the outlines of contemporary Soviet politics: the continued dominance of one person, Gorbachev; the stirrings in the country's Baltic and southern peripheries; and the deep unhappiness of much of the Russian heartland with this once unthinkable political turmoil. Meanwhile, on the podium behind the speaker, Gorbachev, his close associate, Anatoly Lukyanov, and other key leaders consult, exchange notes, and work out compromises.
Many deputies rarely listen to the speaker. A few doze, but many more seem to spend the time chatting. A constant hum rises from the floor. The hum stops when someone from the Baltics, Armenia, or Azerbaijan rises to speak, and reaches an intensity only one or two decibels lower than the speaker when the address is dull.
Other people read essays by the recently rehabilitated revolutionary leader Nikolai Bukharin. On Tuesday as an Uzbeki speaker denounced the weekly Ogonyok - which has been particularly active in documenting corruption in the republic - several of the delegates read the magazine. One Ogonyok article especially favored by delegates was entitled ``How they saved the whales.''
The darkest cloud hanging over the session, the threat of a confrontation between Moscow and the Baltic republic of Estonia, seems for now to have been averted. The crisis flared after the Estonian parliament voted Nov. 16 that it reserved the right to veto legislation from Moscow.
Gorbachev had harsh words for the decision last weekend, but then cut further criticism of the republic from his speech Tuesday. Instead, he called for a commission to look at the status of republics within the union, and promised that concerns of the country's 15 republics would be the next item on the reform agenda. The Estonians in turn adopted a conciliatory line, although they did not repudiate the Nov. 16 decision.
But tension between the Baltic republics and Moscow continues. Speeches by leaders from the three republics all struck a similar note. They emphasised the initial hostility shown by many of their citizens to the constitutional amendments. But the leaders said that changes to the two draft documents made them acceptable - for now. The speeches also made it clear that the Baltic ferment brought forward competent political leaders who do not flinch at questioning Moscow's wisdom. Their performance during the session indicates that they will continue to be a formidable force in Soviet politics.
Gorbachev's speech on Tuesday was the only attempt to address all the issues raised by the reforms. He dismissed objections that the new system would give too much power to the center. Some independent intellectuals had warned that the wide-reaching powers Gorbachev stands to gain under the new order could be used by a successor to overturn reform. But he maintained that the new system contained adequate ``checks and balances.'' And he stressed that the leadership would have to move fast to rectify the ``colossal'' damage done to the country the mistaken policies of past leaders.
A year ago his speech would have seemed breathtakingly radical. But the political spectrum has widened, and his address now was little more than centrist.
He spoke of distortions occurring in the Soviet system from the start of the 1930s - that is, after Joseph Stalin's consolidation of power. He also emphasized the return to Leninist principles of government - a more responsiveness and less bureaucracy. (Some intellectuals are openly asking if Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, was not himself to some degree responsible for the brutal excesses of the Stalin era.)
Outside the session hall, drivers standing by their limousines seemed unmoved by the importance of the occasion. They were discussing the weather: heavy snow has been predicted this weekend. Aren't you interested in politics, they were asked. ``Politics is politics, but ice-fishing is special,'' answered one of the drivers.