AS the tumultuous Congress of the Soviet Communist Party draws to a close, Mikhail Gorbachev can take a slight breath. The resounding vote for Mr. Gorbachev's candidate for deputy party leader, Ukrainian Vladimir Ivashko, over the standard-bearer of the conservative right, Yegor Ligachev, was a moment of triumph.
``It's a vote for perestroika [restructuring],'' Presidential spokesman Arkady Maslennikov told reporters outside the Palace of Congresses yesterday. ``The theory that conservatives would impose their will on the party has proven to be incorrect.''
The forceful Soviet leader will emerge from the two-week long meeting, with his power intact. His own leadership, along with that of his hand-picked deputies, won endorsement from the assembled members of the Communist machine. He has restructured the party to reflect a new, federative principle of organization. And the party, though battered by ideological warfare, remains largely, though perhaps nominally, intact.
What all this adds up to though is that Gorbachev has merely won himself some time, a matter of months only, to revive stalled reforms.
By the beginning of September, the government must present a new plan for transformation of the Soviet economy into a market-based system. Prospects for more Western aid rest on the success of that effort.
The government also faces new nationalist challenges from Georgia and elsewhere in the Caucasus region, as it holds tough negotiations with the independence-minded Baltic states. The spread of separatist sentiments, is part of a broader shift of power out of the traditional center in Moscow.
Gorbachev demonstrated at the Congress that he has no equal when it comes to outmaneuvering his opponents. He brought most of the left to his side in an alliance against those who attacked reform and forced the right to abandon their most extreme voices, particularly Mr. Ligachev, in the name of unity.
The comments of Ivan Polozkov, the right-wing head of the newly formed Russian branch of the party, about his one-time ally Ligachev are telling. He called Ligachev, according to the official news agency Tass, ``a person who failed to quit gracefully'' and who ``has apparently lost touch with the times.''
Yet, despite Gorbachev's ability to hold the Communist Party Congress together, there is little indication that the party is willing, or able, to act as an instrument of these reforms.
While the conservatives have no alternative to his leadership, they proved during the days of debate in the Congress that they have little use for his policies. At best the party apparatus will be a neutral force; at worst it will continue to be an obstructionist one.
The continued decline of the authority and legitimacy of the party has its reflection in the growth of power of the institutions of popular government. The party will increasingly find itself in conflict with those new sources of power, the office of the presidency and the soviets, the now popularly elected legislatures on local, republican, and national level. There new parties, most of them on nationalist foundations, are emerging.
``Many people, according to old custom, are waiting for our destinies to be settled in the Palace of Congresses,'' said Communist delegate Dimitri Volkogonov, a liberal voice in the military, in a published interview. ``But the future is being determined in the parliaments.''
Indeed while the Congress was meeting, the parliament of the Russian federation was quietly making major changes in the government of the republic, which represents some 147 million people. Under the leadership of populist radical Boris Yeltsin, the number of government ministries was slashed in half and reformers placed at the head of new ones. Mr. Yeltsin, a delegate to the party congress, pointedly spent a good part of his time away from the hall.
The drive for independence is evident even in party organizations in Soviet Central Asia, long known for their loyalty to Moscow. Islam Karimov, the recently named head of the Uzbekistan party, described to reporters the moves for forming links of cooperation among the four Central Asian republics and Kazakistan, as well as direct ties with other republics and foreign countries.
``The people of our republic should own the wealth that we have in the republic,'' Mr. Karimov said. He blamed centralization for the fact that Uzbekistan's standard of living is half that of the national average. ``Is it normal that all decisions are made in Moscow and the opinions of the republic are disregarded?'' he asked sharply.
For Gorbachev the emergence of these feelings poses a persistent dilemma. He seeks to shift authority to the new institutions but he cannot yet abandon the command which the party retains over daily life throughout the country.
``Gorbachev doesn't have a good instrument for power,'' comments a Soviet political analyst who wished to remain anonymous. ``There is a conflict between legitimacy and efficiency. The party power has no legitimacy but it is effective. While the presidency and the Soviets are legitimate but not effective. He is trying to synthesize the two.''
This effort to merge the party with the new politics is reflected in Gorbachev's plan to reorganize the leadership bodies of the party along territorial or federal lines. The party secretaries of each of the 15 republics making up the Soviet Union will now constitute most of the Politburo, the highest leadership body. And a proposed 311-man Central Committee has been nominated on the basis of proportional representation of the population of each party organization.
The Central Committee list proposed by these organizations is likely to be challenged with other nominations. But delegates forsee a wholesale turnover of its membership, as much as 90 percent. With the exception of the chief of the KGB and the defense minister, plus Gorbachev and Ivashko, none of the current Politburo members are on the list.