THE Soviet political system is changing day by day. The new standing parliament, the Supreme Soviet, is confounding critics who dismissed it as a pale reflection of the iconoclastic Congress of People's Deputies. Its members have rejected the candidacies of one deputy premier and three ministers in the last three weeks, and are pushing for a greater say in policymaking and oversight. The Communist Party leadership meanwhile is in danger of becoming irrelevant. Occasionally shaken by the Supreme Soviet's assertiveness, President Mikhail Gorbachev is nonetheless encouraging the transfer of power to the new legislature.
As the country slips into economic crisis and widespread unrest, he is apparently hoping that the Supreme Soviet will serve as a political shock-absorber, dispersing criticism that would otherwise have zeroed in on him and a few close advisers. He is shifting responsibility as well as power to the parliament. And he apparently hopes that the Supreme Soviet's 542 deputies will provide the sort of feedback to the grass roots that the Communist Party, discredited in many parts of the country, is unable to ensure.
Politburo member Vitaly Vorotnikov and Central Committee members who are also deputies are not offering leadership in the assembly. They are in fact almost invisible during debates. Leadership is coming from people such as former dissident Roy Medvedev, whose father was killed in Stalin's purges; Nikolai Engver, who was born in a Stalinist prison camp; and Yuri Shcherbak, a Ukrainian doctor and writer who is leading the attack on nuclear power.
And the Supreme Soviet is building up the authority and visibility of senior Communist Party officials who were not hitherto viewed as influential figures in their own right. The most notable of these is Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, until recently little more than the country's chief bureaucrat.
The last few weeks of parliamentary sessions have also seen the destruction of one of the most jealously guarded monopolies of the old Soviet political system: information.
In the last 10 days deputies have begun to piece together a new statistical picture of the Soviet Union. They have been told the size of the Army and the defense budget. They now know how many police the country has, the size of its prison population, and extent of its foreign debt. For two hours last Friday, the Soviet discussed the candidacy of KGB (secret police) chief, Gen. Vladimir Kryuchkov, at one point laughing skeptically when he told them that the KGB did not indiscriminately bug its citizens' phones.
Mr. Gorbachev himself has added to the sum total of knowledge, most dramatically when he embarked on a brief history of his tense relations with the military. His account, according to a Western specialist who has observed this country first hand for two decades, was ``staggering.''
The tone of the discussions has been equally striking. Issues that a year ago seemed either hopelessly obscure or the preserve of a few intellectuals - for example, the creation of a new legal system or the rehabilitation of political prisoners - now seem to be mainstream.
A deputy head of the Supreme Court was verbally savaged and then voted down when he tried to deny that ``telephone law'' - the practice by which political leaders decided a person's fate by a phone call to the presiding judge - had been the accepted practice until a couple of years ago. When Boris Oleinik, deputy chairman of one of the Supreme Soviet's two houses, called for the rehabilitation of victims of political repression of the 1960s and '70s - people he said who were fighting for the freedoms that were now commonplace - he was applauded. No one rose to protest.
Next week, one of the best known victims of political persecution in the 1960s and '70s, Roy Medvedev's brother Zhores, will give expert testimony to a Supreme Soviet committee investigating the 1957 nuclear accident in Chelyabinsk, covered up by the authorities until now. Mr. Medvedev, a physicist, was exiled in 1973 and has lived in England since then.
At times the new parliament's assertiveness has shocked even Gorbachev. Vladimir Lapygin, chairman of the new parliamentary Committee for Supervision of Defense and KGB, has the perfect apparatchik background. A specialist in rocket-guidance systems, he was elected deputy from the Tuva Autonomous Republic, arguably the area of the Soviet Union least touched by perestroika (restructuring). A number of deputies feel his committee has been deliberately packed with soldiers, defense executives, and intelligence men. But during one debate, Mr. Lapygin offered a sweeping definition of the new committee's guidelines: They wanted to discuss the size of the armed forces, its structure, and its strategic doctrines.
Hold on, said Gorbachev. ``I think this statement on the committee's guidelines is premature. We have to think it through. The committee should not try to duplicate the government's role in defense.''