EVEN before this week's grueling Communist Party Central Committee gathering had ended and the final verdict on a possible purge of conservatives was known, the meeting was already being dubbed ``the hard-liners' last stand.'' Clear indication of that came yesterday when the Central Committee ended its three-day session by adopting a platform of radical reform.
``Article 6 will no longer be, there will be a multiparty system. There will be a normal democracy,'' said delegate Svyatoslav Fyodorov, referring to the part of the Soviet Constitution that guaranteed power to the Communist Party. There was one abstention and one vote against the platform, he said. The vote against came from populist leader Boris Yeltsin.
During the meetings, some conservatives aimed blistering attacks at Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, saying he had run the country and the Communist Party into the ground.
Others were more subtle. One, for example, agreeing with Mr. Gorbachev's suggestion that Article 6 should be dropped, but then, in effect, suggesting ways this ``right'' could be formally enshrined in other documents.
But Gorbachev's supporters say everything has gone according to script thus far. The Soviet general secretary - solid in his position as leader of the country, no matter what his title - would withstand a verbal onslaught from both the right and the left of the Communist Party elite and then press ahead with a perestroika (restructuring) of the party.
The fact that the plenum ran over into a third day only underscored the high-stakes nature of the policymakers' task: to head the party toward a reform that will regain the faith of the people.
The final plan for reform will be decided at the 28th party congress, now scheduled for late June or early July. The key question about this congress, which will gather party members from around the country, is whether delegates will be selected through direct, secret elections at the grass roots, rather than through the old-style (often rigged) system. If direct elections are held, the chance of fundamental party reform will be greater.
By the second day of the Central Committee plenum, Gorbachev supporters were talking optimistically, discussing the plenum almost as if it were a horse race.
``I'm quite sure Gorbachev will be the winner,'' Nikolai Shishlin, a Central Committee staff member, told British television on Tuesday.
After Tuesday's session, Estonian Prime Minister Indrek Toome, said to reporters, ``The trend is toward radical change.''
Other party liberals, however, complained that Gorbachev's opening speech - and the party's draft platform, which by yesterday had not been published - contained no direct assertions of what the party would or should do to renovate itself. Instead, it consisted mainly of principles that could be interpreted in various ways.
Gorbachev wanted it this way, says the deputy director of a Moscow institute who helped write a draft of the platform.
``He is not afraid for his position, it's his ideas he needs to protect,'' says the official. ``Gorbachev's centrism is part of his policy formula. But it's not a passive centrism - it's active, slanted to the left.''
As the Soviet Union's economic, political, and moral crises deepen, the Communist Party has polarized to the point of being in danger of splitting, this official and other dedicated party members say. By playing the centrist, Gorbachev aims to keep from alienating the right wing completely.
``At the moment you really start implementing policy,'' says the institute official, ``you want as much support as you can gather. It will require patience. There are no quick fixes. But Gorbachev feels it is necessary to bring along as many conservatives as possible.''
Those high-level party officials who cannot change with the times will be removed. In fact, in growing numbers, they are being forced to resign by the party's increasingly disgruntled grass roots.
Though a majority of the Communist Party's 249 Central Committee members support Gorbachev, on the whole the policymaking body is more conservative than the party's rank and file. For many committee members, reform will mean a loss of status and privilege.
According to the latest issue of Arguments and Facts, the 61 percent of the Central Committee members elected four years ago are at least 60 years old or will be by the time their term ends.
At least in public, Central Committee members have tended to favor Gorbachev's proposal for a smaller, permanently functioning Central Committee made up of elected members.
Currently the committee is made up of high-level party bureaucrats who get their positions on the committee automatically. Though it meets only occasionally, its high status allows it to wield influence at crucial periods.
``I agree with the suggested measures about perestroika of the Central Committee of the party,'' committee member Gennady Yagodin, a high-level education official, said on Soviet television Tuesday night. ``Not only just the reduction of the number of members, as Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev suggests, but in reducing the number we activate each one.''