THIS weekend's second congress of the Latvian Popular Front (LPF) underlines the dramatic shift in political power that has taken place in the course of the past year. The initiative has shifted from Moscow to the republics, and from official political structures to independent organizations.
While Communist Party conservatives fulminate at the change, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is apparently trying to build a new coalition that includes the more moderate members of the Baltic independent movements.
At their founding congress a year ago, LPF activists looked warily over their shoulder to see how Moscow would respond to their movement. The activists stressed their commitment to political reform in the Soviet Union and to ``Leninist principles of socialism.''
Last weekend, meeting in the elegant conference hall made available to them by the Latvian Communist Party, Front activists spoke openly of their belief that what they call the Soviet empire is collapsing. Communism is a failure, they said, and Latvia's future lies in a multiparty political system with a mixed economy.
The Front's new political program calls for the beginning of a transition to independence, for Latvia to assume control over the police and the KGB secret police and to negotiate the gradual removal of Soviet troops.
There was only one vote against the 126-point program from the 1,074 delegates.
But Latvian Communist Party officials at the conference expressed relief at the program's moderation, and made it clear they could live with the new LPF platform.
The LPF political spectrum runs from open anticommunism through to a very reformist brand of Western-style socialism. Despite this, many Front activists are keen to keep communications open with Mr. Gorbachev.
Perhaps even more strikingly, Gorbachev is keen to keep the lines open to them.
In private chats and messages he is passing the word to Baltic activists: Go as far as you like, but do not secede, and do not provoke the republic's non-Latvian population.
Gorbachev's concerns were reflected to some degree in the new LPF progam. The wording sounds radical, but is in fact a compromise. Key phrases are kept deliberately undefined.
The program calls for the restoration of Latvia's independence (it was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940).
But some Front leaders say this is a distant ideal, not an immediate prospect, while activists of the radical League for National Independence concede that independence is still a number of years away. And moderates like Janis Peters suggest the idea could even be reviewed if Gorbachev's reforms create a truly transformed Soviet Union.
LPF moderates feel that many of the Soviet leader's ideas coincide with their own. After all, ``Gorbachev is engaged in a bloodless dismantling of the Soviet Union,'' says Mr. Peters - a poet, founding member of the Front, and now a deputy in the Soviet Union's standing parliament, the Supreme Soviet.
Gorbachev keeps in almost constant touch with official and unofficial Baltic leaders, sources in both the Baltics and Moscow say.
Within days of returning from vacation this summer, he had met the three top leaders of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
He talks to the Baltic members of the Supreme Soviet, many of whom are leaders of their respective popular fronts. Recently, for example, he spoke to the elder statesman of the Latvian parliamentary delegation, LPF member Mavrik Wulfson.
Mr. Wulfson says that once again Gorbachev emphasized the need to avoid friction with non-Latvians and not to push for secession.
Peters adds that during such conversations, Gorbachev tacitly acknowledges that events are now moving faster than he can control.
At times Gorbachev's quiet diplomacy requires him to reassure Baltic activists about the statements of other senior Communist Party leaders.
Last Aug. 26, for example, while Gorbachev was on vacation, the Communist Party Central Committee issued a harsh statement, expressing concern about the situation in the Baltic states. Soon after his return to Moscow, Gorbachev told Baltic party leaders and some independent activists that the statement was ``best forgotten.''
In conversation with some Baltic independent members of parliament, he hinted that a coming Central Committee meeting on nationality policy would bring them more pleasing news.
At the Sept. 20 meeting, Politburo member Viktor Chebrikov - believed by many official and unofficial Baltic politicians to be one of the prime movers behind the Aug. 26 statement - was retired.
In its year of existence the LPF has become the central force in Latvian politics. It now has over 207,000 active members, as opposed to the approximately 184,000 members of the Latvian Communist Party.
Latvian president Anatoly Gorbunov, the most prominent representative of the party's reform wing, admitted during a press conference Saturday that the party had largely lost the political initiative.
A public opinion poll by Latvian TV and Radio published on the eve of the congress presented the party with more grim news.
The poll showed only 2.6 percent of ethnic Latvians and 8.8 percent of ethnic Russian residents of the republic expressing unqualified support for the Communist Party.
The LPF by contrast obtained the full support of 79 percent of ethnic Latvians and 64.1 percent of ethnic Russians.
The Front's main problems at the moment come from internal tensions, not from the Communist Party. The LPF leadership is under pressure from the League for National Independence, a more radical separatist movement that is part of the Front, but maintains a distinct political organization.
The League is critical of the LPF leadership's emphasis on parliamentary struggle and its willingness to compromise on key issues.
LPF leaders are also in open conflict with the Front's newspaper, Atmoda (``Awakening''), which they claim leans toward the League.
But a strong challenge from radicals was beaten off on Sunday, when LPF president Dainis Ivans was reelected to his post, defeating one of the League's most popular leaders, Imant Kalnins.