On the eve of the second Congress of People's Deputies, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is fighting hard to hold the political center. From the left, pressure is building for early elimination of Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution, which guarantees the Communist Party's monopoly on power. At the same time, conservative forces are becoming increasingly vocal in their demands for more discipline and for the Communist Party to reassert its authority.
At a plenum Saturday of the party's Central Committee, General Secretary Gorbachev seemed to be steering a middle course. While he reaffirmed his belief that the Communist Party remains the single uniting force of the country - and the guarantor of perestroika (restructuring) - he allowed that Article 6 could eventually be dropped as part of the overall process of constitutional reform under way. Gorbachev's speech to the plenum dominated the Soviet press yesterday.
At the plenum, the Central Committee approved recreation of a separate party structure for the Russian Republic. Gorbachev was named head of the new body, but the members selected were largely from the conservative camp - a move that seemed a concession to the right. The Central Committee also promoted a conservative, Ukrainian party chief Vladimir Ivasho, to full membership on the Politburo. And as a bow to the liberals, Ivan Frolov, the new editor of the party daily Pravda and a Gorbachev ally, was made a secretary of the Central Committee.
On the question of Article 6, which has dominated political talk in recent days, other Politburo members have reflected Gorbachev's formulation. Alexander Yakovlev, Gorbachev's close adviser, recently told young adults at a Komsomol (Young Communist) school: ``I personally think it [Article 6] is not needed. It does not fit into the structure of the democratic construction of separate legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government.
``But,'' he continued, ``if you ask, would I vote now for the exclusion of this article, I would not. I'll explain why. I think that, with the formation of a new constitution, this article does not have to be there, not in any case. But if we suddenly, now, take that article out, it would send an unclear signal to society.''
At a press conference Saturday following the Central Committee plenum, Politburo member and ideology chief Vadim Medvedev said the party could foresee a time when its policies must ``fight for support from voters.''
In Gorbachev's view, that time has not come. And the Soviet leader has made clear that the trend toward multiparty democracy sweeping the East bloc - which has proceeded with nary a public complaint from Moscow - must stop at the Soviet border.
But Baltic Communists, with the Lithuania party leadership in the forefront and Latvia and Estonia not far behind, see things differently. On Dec. 19, the Lithuanian party is widely expected to declare its independence from Moscow during its party congress. This, after last Thursday's move by the Lithuanian Parliament to remove its own Article 6 from the republic's Constitution.
Gorbachev had some sharp words for Lithuanian party leader Anatoly Brazauskas during Saturday's plenum: ``We should be on guard against crossing the border beyond which there is a danger of destroying the Communist Party of the Soviet Union as a united political organization and as the most important integrating force of the USSR.''
The more Gorbachev tries to rein in the Lithuanian Communists, however, the more they dig in their heels. Gorbachev sent Mr. Medvedev, the ideology chief, to Lithuania recently to try to get the party to rethink its course, but Medvedev was rebuffed.
The Lithuanian Communists say they feel they have no choice. With elections for the Supreme Soviet coming in February, and opposition forces looking strong, the Lithuanian Communists see their moves as necessary for political survival. There has even been some talk that the Lithuanian Communist Party might dissolve itself and reconstitute itself into some form of social democratic party, much as the Hungarian Communists did.
In the other Baltic republics, Latvia and Estonia, noncommunist candidates were expected to trounce the communists in elections held yesterday for local soviets. Though the Lithuanian vote in February will probably be the first formal multiparty elections in the Soviet Union since 1917, yesterday's elections in the other Baltic states were in effect multiparty.
Like the Lithuanians, the Estonians have also laid the groundwork for elimination of the Communist Party's ``leading role.''
In Moscow, these moves have emboldened some leading radical deputies to take their campaign against Article 6 directly to the workers. With former dissident Andrei Sakharov in the lead, the group has called for a general two-hour strike across the country today to show support for putting Article 6 on the agenda of the 10-day Congress of People's Deputies, which opens tomorrow.